LONDON (AlertNet) – Britain has changed its immigration rules to enable stateless people to escape their precarious hidden existence on the margins of society and legalise their presence, giving them a path to possible citizenship and a normal life.
“For the first time, stateless people stranded in legal limbo in the United Kingdom will have the route to rebuild their lives,” said Russell Hargrave, spokesman for Asylum Aid, which estimates the number of stateless people in Britain grows by 50 to 100 each year.
Asylum experts called the decision “extremely exciting” and urged other countries to follow suit.
People are stateless if no country recognises them as its nationals. Without citizenship, they are deprived of the most basic rights and often live in extreme poverty.
Until now, Britain has had no procedure for recognising stateless people. Many have tried to claim asylum but were rejected as they did not fit the definition of a refugee – someone who cannot return to their home country for fear of persecution.
Told to leave Britain but with nowhere to go, many stateless people have ended up on the streets. Some have been locked up in immigration detention centres, even though there is no country to which they can be deported.
The new rules - introduced last week but not previously reported - will enable them to apply for recognition as stateless people and receive permission to remain in Britain, allowing them to look for work and gain access to healthcare and other services.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said Britain was joining only a handful of other countries with a dedicated determination procedure offering stateless people a way out of their predicament.
It said Britain’s initiative was “a landmark step” which would set an important example, particularly to commonwealth states.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 12 million stateless people. Many lost their nationality when their country ceased to exist. Some have been stripped of their nationality by their governments. Others have never had a nationality. This happens, for example, in countries where the law prevents mothers passing on nationality to their children.
Some of those in Britain arrived on fake passports or on special stateless documents issued by international bodies. Others have lost their nationality while living in Britain because of changes in their home country.
Hargrave said the new rules did not apply to undocumented migrants or those who had lost their paperwork.
“This is very significant. The people who would immediately benefit are pretty small in number, but their needs are very high. This will really focus attention on those guys for the first time and that is very welcome indeed,” he said.
The change follows a major 2011 study in which the UNHCR and Asylum Aid interviewed stateless people across Britain and called for the government to end their legal limbo.
The research showed stateless people were living in deep poverty and under huge psychological strain. Those interviewed included people born in Bhutan, Kuwait, Chad, Liberia and Lebanon, to name a few. About two thirds had slept rough at some point and one third had been detained.
One man said he felt like “a bird with nowhere to rest on the ground, but which can’t spend his whole life in the sky”. Most spoke of despair and frustration as they watched their life ebb away with no prospect of improvement.
Without documents, stateless people cannot get accommodation or employment and they avoid going to the doctor if they are ill for fear of ending up in detention. In many cases people have been separated from their loved ones for years.
“We came across a lot of people who are homeless, a lot of people who have been destitute, a lot of people who are completely reliant on ad hoc assistance from friends,” Hargrave said.
However, he pointed out that the rule change comes at a time when Britain is restricting legal aid for immigration cases. Experts are concerned that stateless people may find it hard to get legal help to prove they are stateless.
Hargrave said the European Network on Statelessness, an initiative launched last year which groups lawyers, academics and charities in 30 countries, is now working to tackle the issue of statelessness across the continent.
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