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Bulgaria urged to stop locking up stateless people by detained heart doctor

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 February 2019 12:59 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man walks in a park in the centre of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, October 16, 2008. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

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More than 130 stateless people have been detained in Bulgaria in last decade but real number is probably higher as stateless people are often wrongly ascribed nationality

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Feb 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A cardiac specialist, who was locked up in Bulgaria for six weeks because he has no nationality, has called on the government to stop treating stateless people like criminals.

Sager Al-Anezi, who is from a large stateless population in Kuwait called the Bidoon, qualified as a doctor after moving to Bulgaria in 2007 and was training to become a heart surgeon.

The doctor said stateless people could not go to university in Kuwait, but he was able to obtain a passport from a third country - which he did not want to name - with Kuwait's blessing which allowed him to study abroad and led him to Bulgaria.

But when he tried to renew that passport the third country refused and he applied for formal recognition as a stateless person in Bulgaria. He was locked up on Jan. 3 when he chased up on that application.

"I've been treated worse than a criminal, but I don't know what my crime is," Al-Anezi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Bulgaria's capital Sofia.

"How can you lock people up simply for having no citizenship?"

Bulgaria's Ministry of Interior did not respond to a request for comment sent around midday Friday.

Al-Anezi, 29, who was released late Friday, said he must report to police weekly and cannot return to work.

Sager Al-Anezi is pictured in a coffee shop in Bulgaria. Photo taken February 2018 and supplied by Sager Al-Anezi

His lawyer Valeria Ilareva said there was an order for Al-Anezi's deportation but it didn't state a destination so he was left in limbo.

Bulgaria introduced a procedure a couple of years ago to allow stateless people to apply for formal recognition of their status, potentially leading to residence rights and a travel document.

Ilareva said government figures showed more than 130 stateless people had been detained in the last decade and the real number was probably higher as stateless people were often wrongly ascribed a nationality.

"Bulgaria must stop locking up stateless people. There's no reasonable prospect of their removal so detention is like a punishment," she said.

Legal experts with knowledge of Al-Anezi's case said it underscored the vulnerability of millions of stateless people globally who are sometimes called "legal ghosts" as they are not recognised by any nation and are deprived of basic rights.

There is no reliable estimate for the number of stateless people although the United Nations has previously said there could be 10 million and launched a campaign in 2014 to end statelessness by 2024.

The European Network on Statelessness (ENS), an advocacy group, published a report on Monday criticising Bulgaria for "serious shortcomings" in its treatment of stateless people.

"Dr Al-Anezi was abruptly taken from his vital work as a doctor and locked up simply for lacking a nationality," said ENS director Chris Nash.

"His story illustrates the waste of human potential caused by a flawed system which needs urgent improvement."

There are an estimated 100,000 Bidoon in Kuwait which says they are nationals of other countries. Human rights groups say the majority have no state.

Al-Anezi said his father and grandfather were both born in Kuwait but were denied citizenship. His mother is a Kuwaiti national but women cannot pass their nationality to children.

"I want the simplest of things - an ID card," Al-Anezi said. "I want to get on with my training. I really don't want much. I just want to be treated as a human."

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens and Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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