"Like tumbleweed, I can never put down roots" - stateless woman

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 October 2014 07:00 GMT

Railya Abulkhanova shows her travel document after speaking at the first global forum on statelessness in The Hague, September 16, 2014. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Emma Batha

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“I feel like a person who has been sent to space and forgotten about," says Railya who has no nationality

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Railya Abulkhanova flies abroad she faces hours of interrogation by immigration officials. When she applies for a job she is met with suspicion. The former university professor has never been in trouble with the law -- her problem is she has no nationality: she is stateless.

"I cannot put down roots so it's like tumbleweed which rolls and rolls without stopping. I want to stop and put down roots, but I can't," says Railya, who was born in the Soviet Union's Kazakh republic and now lives in France.

"Whatever country I go to, I am a foreigner there. I cannot have dreams or ambitions. My future is absolutely unknown."

Railya is one of hundreds of thousands of people who fell through the cracks when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. She failed to obtain any citizenship and, 23 years on, she still lives in limbo. She is what U.N. experts call a "legal ghost".

There are an estimated 600,000 stateless people in Europe. Without nationality they are deprived of the rights and benefits most people take for granted and at risk of exploitation and detention.

Railya looks close to tears as she explains her predicament. "Whenever I say I'm stateless people ask why and how, and that's when my emotions really rise. I have no rights and no connections with others. I feel like a person who has been sent to space and then forgotten about," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Now 41, Railya was studying in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, but she did not meet the criteria for citizenship in any of the successor states. "In the first years after the break-up, the citizenship laws of all the Soviet republics changed so often that you could not keep up with them," she says. "The requirements were very tough to meet."

She eventually moved to the Uzbek capital Tashkent where she taught French at the University of World Languages and gained her PhD. The Uzbek authorities gave her a document declaring she was stateless, but it is not recognised elsewhere. In 2009 she married a French man and moved to Lille in northern France, but her life remains on hold.

Despite her qualifications she cannot find work. "There's no interest when they know I'm stateless. If there's an interview I have to explain all the time that I'm stateless and what that is." The worst thing is the look of mistrust on people's faces. "It's as if you always have to prove your right to exist."

Railya dreads people asking where she is from. "That's a question I cannot answer." She hesitates before adding: "I'm from the USSR -- that's probably the closest."

INVISIBLE PEOPLE

Unusually for a stateless person, Railya owns a travel document. But securing a visa is a bureaucratic nightmare and passing through immigration takes hours because no one has seen a passport like hers.

She finds the ordeal so upsetting that she avoids travel and has not seen her family in Kazakhstan for several years.

The passport - issued by the French authorities - is a simple olive-green booklet with none of the decorative symbols, anti-forgery watermarks or technological innovations common to modern European passports. On the front it says: Travel Document for Stateless, and underneath: Convention of 28 September 1954 - a reference to the first U.N. treaty on statelessness.

Worldwide some 10 million people lack nationality, making them arguably the world's most invisible people. Next month the United Nations will unveil an ambitious global campaign to eradicate statelessness within a decade.

Campaigners in Europe are holding a day of action at the European Parliament on Tuesday calling for better protection for the continent's stateless who they say should be given similar rights to refugees.

France is one of just eight European countries that has a system for recognising stateless people, but as Railya's story shows she still cannot build a future. She is pinning her hopes on France eventually recognising her as a citizen.

Railya's passport allowed her to attend the first global forum on statelessness in The Hague last month. She appeared emotionally drained by the experience, but as the conference wrapped up Railya broke into a smile. "It's good that people are finally talking about us," she said.

(For more stories on statelessness visit: stateless.trust.org) (Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ros Russell)

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