U.N: Europe Must Stop Locking Up Thousands of Stateless People

Various human rights' agencies have called on European countries to stop locking up stateless refugees. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Dec 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – European countries must stop locking up stateless people like criminals, human rights campaigners said, describing their detention as “a preventable tragedy” that risks being worsened by the migrant crisis.

Thousands of stateless people are being held in immigration detention centres across Europe even though they cannot be deported because no country recognises them as citizens, the campaigners said late on Monday.

They urged European governments to introduce procedures for identifying stateless people so they can be protected in the same way as refugees and given a chance to rebuild their lives.

There are an estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide. With no nationality, they are denied basic rights most people take for granted, including access to education, healthcare and jobs. Many live in destitution and risk detention and exploitation.

Francois Crepeau, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said the immigration detention of stateless people was “one of the silent tragedies of our globalised world”.

“It is a tragedy that is completely preventable, but due to a lack of will and attention, continues to harm thousands of lives all around the world every year,” he said in a foreword to new guidelines on protecting stateless people from detention.

Chris Nash, director of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS), which produced the guidance, said the detention of stateless people for long periods was an “extremely disturbing trend.”

“Across Europe a failure by states to put in place effective systems to identify stateless persons leaves thousands exposed to repeated and lengthy detention,” he added.

Campaigners say there are likely to be stateless people among the hundreds of thousands arriving in Europe, as many of the countries they are fleeing, including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have significant stateless populations.


The guidance, intended for lawyers, judges, legislators and policymakers, was issued a year after the United Nations launched a global campaign to eradicate statelessness in a decade.

Stateless people detained in Poland, the Netherlands and Malta told ENS researchers they had been made to feel like criminals.

Kafil Kafil, an ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, spent months in detention in Malta after being rescued off a burning boat in the Mediterranean. Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya.

“The policewoman could not believe me when I said I came from Myanmar,” Kafil told ENS. “Nobody spoke my language and there was no translator.”

Kafil said people often fell sick because of overcrowding, poor food and lack of exercise. On one occasion he developed a fever and was taken to the clinic in handcuffs “as if I was a criminal”.

Others interviewed by ENS became stateless following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Ivan Niyazov, an ethnic Russian born in the Soviet Union in what is now Uzbekistan, can obtain neither Russian nor Uzbek nationality.

He has been in and out of detention in the Netherlands, losing more three years to imprisonment.

“(I’m from) a country that is now seventeen countries. I don’t know who I am,” said Niyazov, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“I can’t trust people any more. Detention changed me.”

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