LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three years ago Steven walked into a police station in the British city of Cardiff and asked to be arrested even though he hadn’t committed any crime. When the police refused, he asked if it would help if he insulted an officer. They refused again.
Steven had hit rock bottom after a series of events had left him destitute, and he believed a police cell would be preferable to another night sleeping rough.
His predicament boils down to one fact: No country recognises him as a citizen.
“Being stateless is like being an alien. Anywhere you place me on the planet, everyone will still say, ‘You are not from here’,” he says. “Just talking about it makes me feel anxious.”
With no nationality, he has no rights to the basics most people take for granted such as healthcare, education and employment. He cannot travel, open a bank account, get a driving licence or even get married.
Steven, now 32, believes he was born in Zimbabwe, or possibly Mozambique. His mother vanished when he was 18, and he never knew his dad.
“I haven’t got a record of my birth, and that’s the beginning of all my problems. I have nothing to state who I am or where I’m from.”
Steven - not his real name - spent his childhood travelling with his mother, a vendor who sold goods in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. She told him almost nothing about her family, but he believes she was from Mozambique and may have fled because of the civil war there.
At 15, Steven’s mum left him with a relative in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo. He last saw her in 2000. No one has heard from her since. As he approached adulthood he tried to obtain ID, but could find no record of his birth.
He left Zimbabwe after becoming involved with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which had been set up to challenge President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party. As the authorities cracked down, he fled to London on a fake passport obtained by an agent.
British officials rejected Steven’s application for asylum and told him to leave, but with no documents he was unable to do so. While he awaited a solution, he settled in Cardiff, where he worked at the city’s rugby stadium and in warehouses. No one ever asked for identification. He fell in love with a Ugandan student and they set up home and had a baby.
“It was a normal life like anyone would dream of. Wake up, go to work, come back, play with my daughter. It was perfect,” he says.
But his world collapsed in 2010, when his girlfriend finished her studies and was told to return to Uganda.
“However hard it was, I felt it was best for my daughter to go with her mother. I had no place to stay and no nationality to pass on to my daughter. There is no way I’m having a child take on my statelessness.”
At the same time, UK employers started checking IDs. Steven lost everything and ended up in a homeless shelter. Friends turned their backs on him when he said he was an illegal immigrant.
Steven has written countless letters to the Zimbabwean and Mozambican embassies, the registrar in Harare and even the hospital where he believes he was born. The Zimbabwean Embassy said he would have to go to Harare to search records.
“One solicitor who’s an expert on Zimbabwe clearly stated to me that my situation is very, very bleak,” he says. “Me being here, there’s no way I can find out the facts for myself. I would have to be able to travel and I can’t.”
Most stateless people in Britain end up in destitution or detention even though there is nowhere they can be deported to.
There is growing international recognition that the world must do more to protect people like Steven. The United Nations, which estimates there are up to 12 million stateless people globally, will launch a major campaign this year to eradicate statelessness within a decade.
Asylum groups in Europe are meanwhile calling on their governments to provide stateless people with a way to legalise their residence, giving them similar rights to refugees.
Britain introduced a stateless determination procedure last year, and Steven is waiting to hear if his application has been successful.
“What I’d like most is an ID with my picture on it. I’ve never had one before,” he says. “I would work hard and go and find my daughter.”
If Zimbabwe provides documentation proving Steven is Zimbabwean, he says he would worry about returning to a country where he no longer knows anyone. “But at least I would know that I am a Zimbabwean. I would have an ID. I would be part of a people.”
The worst outcome would be to remain undocumented.
“I would be an illegal immigrant forever. I’d be left to roam the streets. One day I’d die and no one would come to my funeral.”
Steven has now spent 10 years in limbo, but tries to remain positive. He lives with a new girlfriend and her two boys, whom he is clearly devoted to. Unable to work, he cooks, cleans and looks after the children. He also volunteers at the crisis centre where he used to sleep.
Articulate and bright, Steven spends a lot of time in the library - his “second home”. He would have loved to train as a quantity surveyor, but statelessness has robbed him of opportunities.
However, there is one dream he won’t let go of: “I want my daughter to have that sense of security and belonging that I never had.”