Legally a stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality. Statelessness is an invisible trait that can happen to anyone anywhere in the world. In Europe there are at least half a million people without a nationality and many more that have not officially been recognized as stateless. Christiana Bukalo and Laura van Waas are working to support stateless people and raise awareness on the issue of statelessness. A conversation on statelessness in Europe.
About the interview partners
Christiana Bukalo: Christiana Bukalo is the co-founder of the non-profit association Statefree e.V.. She grew up stateless in Germany, is an individual member and Trustee of the European Network on Statelessness and works together with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion to raise awareness on the issue of statelessness. Her political engagement regarding Statelessness in Germany is now supported by JoinPolitics.
Laura van Waas: Laura van Waas is a founder and co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, as well as assistant professor at the Department of Public Law and Governance at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Since 2004 she has been dedicating her work, research and teaching to the legal dimension of statelessness and practices to support people in their fight for their right to a nationality.
Laura van Waas, could you please give us a short overview on statelessness in Europe? How many stateless people are there in this world region?
Laura van Waas: Nobody knows exactly how many people are stateless in Europe. But it is understood that there are at least half a million people who are living without a nationality in Europe today. You find statelessness basically in every country in Europe, but particularly large populations in Estonia and Latvia. Here you have people who remain stateless today, because they failed to acquire a nationality when those states became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Which groups in Europe are particularly affected by statelessness and what are the reasons for this?
Laura van Waas: One of the big causes of statelessness in Europe and around the world has been situations where countries have gained independence or have broken up. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to many stateless people and we see similar problems in countries of the former Yugoslavia. Some people were not able to acquire the nationality of the newly emerged countries and as it was no longer possible to be a citizen of Yugoslavia they became stateless. This situation particularly affected people from the Roma community. Due to a lack of sufficient documentation of their address or place of birth they often faced difficulties proving their connections to the newly formed countries and therefore could not acquire the new nationality. This continues to have an effect for the next generations since traditionally children inherit their nationality from their parents. If the parents are stateless or their nationality status is disputed, it can be difficult for children to get a nationality.
Through the rest of Europe statelessness mainly occurs in the context of migration. That can be situations where someone was stateless before coming to Europe like many stateless Palestinians who were fleeing the war in Syria. They were stateless already in Syria and they remain stateless now that they have found protection in Europe. And then you have some situations where people have come to Europe with a nationality but due for instance to their long-term absence or as a result of political changes in their country of origin, they run the risk of losing their nationality. Sometimes the laws of other countries also limit conferral of nationality by parents to their children, such as where nationality cannot be passed on by the mother, which can put children who are born to migrants or refugees settled in Europe at risk of statelessness. There are currently 25 countries globally where women are limited in their right to confer nationality on their children – including for example Syria, Malaysia and Kuwait.
Christiana Bukalo, you grew up stateless in Germany. How did you become stateless?
Christiana Bukalo: My situation links to statelessness often occurring in the context of migration and also the fact that the status of statelessness or an ‘unclear nationality’ often gets passed on over generations. My parents came from West Africa to Germany 28 years ago. As they did not have sufficient documentation of their identity, they were given the 'unclear nationality’ status and that is what I inherited the minute I was born in Germany. Since it is very hard to naturalize in Germany this is the status that I have been in ever since. Only for three years now I am actually recognized as a stateless person.
Can you explain what the difference is between being recognized as stateless and having an 'unclear nationality' status?
Christiana Bukalo: You could refer to it as being either de-facto stateless or de-jure stateless. In both cases the people do not have a nationality. The difference is that de-jure statelessness is legally recognised, but de-facto statelessness is not. An example of de-facto statelessness can be the ‘unclear nationality’. In this case, the person is without an effective nationality, but this is not legally recognised as de-jure statelessness. In Germany this status is called ‘ungeklärt’ (undetermined) which conveys that it is still to be clarified if a person is really stateless. You remain in this unclear and pending status. But if you are lucky you will get recognized as a stateless person at some point. This means that you have higher chances of getting travel documents for example and improved opportunities for naturalisation. In Germany a clarified identity is a prerequisite for naturalization. You cannot apply for naturalisation if your ‘identity’ is still ‘unclear’. Although statelessness is already an invisible issue, it is still more visible than the matter of an ‘unclear nationality’.
Laura van Waas: Legally a stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality. And legally it is important to get recognized as stateless because international law sets certain rules about how people with no nationality should be treated by states. You need to be recognized as stateless to be able to exercise those special rights and protections, like being able and even helped to access naturalization.
What does the process to get recognized as a stateless person look like in Germany?
Christiana Bukalo: In theory you have to prove that you are not able to obtain another nationality. The burden of proof definitely lies with the stateless person and it is rather hard to prove something that is not there. Practically this means that a person would need to go to a certain embassy and ask them to hand out any document or any statement that proves the fact that he or she cannot obtain that nationality. In reality that tends to be pretty hard and often retraumatizing for people because there are different reasons why that person does not have (or want to have) any ties to that nation state anymore. But in my case, I would not even be able to explain how I got recognized as a stateless person. This is particularly because there is no defined procedure in Germany for determining statelessness. In my case, the decision was made by the person working in the authority who processed my application.
Laura van Waas: What Christiana Bukalo is describing is the story of so many stateless people across Europe. It shows that essentially governments are suspicious of the idea that you do not have a nationality because it is not considered the norm. And it shows that in the end it comes down to someone in the authorities having to take an interest in your case and ultimately having to decide on recognition. But what you see is that because statelessness is quite an unknown phenomenon and so difficult to prove, the responsible people in the authorities are often quite hesitant with the recognition. They are afraid of being generous and in many countries there is a political culture of mistrust. This leads to people in charge assuming that stateless people are hiding facts about their identity and to situations where they will only recognize you as stateless if you provide proof or convince them that you have done everything in your power to do so. That is why no one really knows how many stateless people there are in Europe. There are many people who have not been recognized as stateless and who do not have the confidence or knowledge to push for that recognition. That makes the problem even more invisible than it already is.
What does it actually mean to be stateless?
Christiana Bukalo: As a child, citizenship did not mean much to me because it is a theoretical construct. It is something you do not really feel and I did not know that it existed. Although I did understand that we were limited in some sense, like we never travelled and so forth. Now, being stateless actually reflects a lot of what I feel. I do not necessarily identify with a certain nation and I think that is also because even though I am a person that has been living in Germany all my life I am still in the process of having to prove why or whether I am allowed to stay here. The fact that I still have the stateless status just conveys to me that the government or the state does not want me to belong here. That makes it really hard to identify with a country. But apart from the limitations it creates, I would not even feel so bad about not having a nationality. Because as a person who grew up without it I understood that you can be a person without having a nationality. I do feel like I belong to my family and the groups I interact with. I feel like I have an environment of which I am part of. I decided that it is maybe healthier to separate those two things: Yes, I do not really feel like I belong to Germany but that does not mean that I do not belong to this world. But the problem is that your citizenship is tied to so many things that actually make you question your identity and worth, that the lack of a nationality becomes something negative although it does not necessarily have to be something negative.
Laura van Waas: I think for everyone with or without nationality, the experience of citizenship and whether it matches your identity is a very personal thing. I mean I have two citizenships, which is another form of being conflicted; and ask for instance someone in Britain whether they still feel European. All of these things have that very personal lived dimension to it and the identity question is for everyone to reconcile with themselves. But in practice in our system in the world, states have the monopoly and if you do not officially belong to one of the states on paper it causes all sorts of problems in practice. And that is the piece that we are working to resolve.
How does your status as a stateless person impact your life? What difficulties do you and other affected persons face in everyday life?
Christiana Bukalo: The impact of statelessness on your life is often connected to your residence status. Therefore the way that it has affected my life has changed over the course of the last years because my residence status has improved. Right now, what I am noticing the most is that I am not able to participate in this democracy. I am not allowed to vote. Frequently, I am facing situations in which I need to take an extra step: Even though I do have a travel document, my freedom of movement is very limited because I often need additional information to know how to navigate this right to travel. Also, there are some very basic things like being asked to digitally verify my identity by uploading my ID-card. My documents are often not recognized as the system just does not know that they exist. Moreover, when I want to register for certain services I am just not able to, because people are asking for my nationality and the option of stateless, or maybe ‘unclear nationality’, is often not given. So, what happens is that I sometimes do not know how to deal with the particular situation and I decide not to do certain things. In my case that was university and signing up for the courses I wanted to. Apart from that, stateless people might struggle to get a bank account, do not have access to public health services or cannot go to school. Luckily, those are things I did not experience because my parents’ residence status allowed me to access those things.
Building on Christiana Bukalo's insights, are there any differences between the impact of statelessness on the lives of those affected in different European countries?
Laura van Waas: There certainly is a difference. One thing that makes a difference is that some countries in Europe (including for instance France, Spain, Hungary and the UK)
At the same time you have places in Europe where statelessness is part of a wider discrimination against minorities and it can be difficult to separate whether their exclusion results from their statelessness or societal discrimination in general. This particularly affects Roma minority groups in countries like Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and even Italy. Here, if you are stateless and Roma it really becomes difficult to access schooling for example. In the context of the COVID-19-Pandemic we have also seen difficulties to get access to relief packages from the government or the vaccine. As it was not obvious to the governments that they have a responsibility and an interest to include this stateless population, a lot of advocacy work had to be done to help these people access health services and economic relief during the pandemic.
As both of you work on the topic of statelessness. What is your perspective on the system of nation states and the implications that come with it?
Christiana Bukalo: I feel like obviously the system of nation states was created with the intention of serving a certain purpose and I guess this purpose is valuable and valid. But it has become clear that this system, unfortunately, is not accessible to everyone or it at least leaves out a certain group of people. Knowing this, I think the system should be adapted. At the moment, categories are being used to say ‘you do not belong’ instead of ‘hey, you belong’. I think that we should be more open with the community instead of spreading this narrative that we have to be protected against some ‘other group’.
Laura van Waas: The system of nation states is something that I and others who have worked in the field of statelessness for a long time keep coming back to. Especially when a global pandemic hits, all the borders close and you see an unbelievable disparity magnified, you are confronted again by how unfair this system is. And yet, you have to work within the system because I do not think anyone has yet imagined an alternative that would solve all of these problems. I would love to imagine a world, where which citizenship you have did not matter or where it does not exist, or where borders were irrelevant or where people could just live where it was safe and there was enough food. But in the day to day, I live and work within the system and try to help correct some of the problems that that system causes.
Laura van Waas, you are a founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. Why was the institute set up and what does it do exactly?
Laura van Waas: The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) was set up seven years ago to fill the gap that there was no civil society organisation that was set up to push specifically on the issue of statelessness at the global level. There were only groups working on, for instance, human rights issues more generally or assisting refugees and migrants, who encountered statelessness but were not dedicated to the issue. Work on statelessness was also dominated by a UN-driven agenda that approached it as a humanitarian issue, seeing stateless people as being outside the system and in need of protection. Contrary to that, we understand statelessness as a human rights issue and a violation of the right to a nationality. In our understanding, stateless persons do not need protection, they need respect for their rights.
Essentially, we work with people all over the world to ensure that there is expertise and knowledge in the places that it is needed. We gather evidence of what the drivers of statelessness are so that there can be better responses to that. We help to make sure that issues that people are seeing at the local level are also documented at the level of the UN and are therefore fed into the UN human rights system. Our work is very varied and can involve research, training, network building or trying to bring people together to brainstorm solutions.
What other institutions and organisations support stateless people in Europe?
Laura van Waas: There is the European Network on Statelessness that was established in 2012. It brings together a variety of local and national civil society groups but also academic experts and stateless people who are involved in activism on the issue. It is a place where all of these organisations and individuals can come together, share expertise and take joint actions. It has run a number of campaigns for example to end immigration detention for stateless people or to address childhood statelessness among refugees and migrants in Europe.
Nowadays, there is probably a civil society organisation at the national level in any given country in Europe that spends at least some of its time doing work on statelessness. And increasingly there are also PhD researchers, journalists, individual activists and community leaders who are doing really fantastic work to document the issues, raise public attention or try to influence political processes. It is maybe not a very visible or known field to the outside world but it is a very vibrant and growing group of organisations and individuals across the region.
What approaches and mechanisms are there in Europe to end statelessness?
Laura van Waas: One of the big pieces of the puzzle in terms of working towards solutions of statelessness in Europe is promoting the establishment of procedures to make sure that stateless people can be recognized. That could help them access naturalisation and ultimately to resolve their statelessness. Originally there were only three or four countries like France, Spain and Italy that had these procedures in place. In the past ten years Hungary, Latvia, the United Kingdom and a number of other states have followed.
Then in other contexts it is about making sure that statelessness never actually happens or is stopped very early. One of the key strategies is to push states to respect every child's right to acquire a nationality as soon as possible after birth. So a really important area of work is to make sure that where children are born without a nationality, action is taken to put them on a pathway to a nationality or at least to recognize them as stateless. Ideally, they should be granted the nationality of the country where they are born as that is what the international law rule is. This is not applied across all of Europe but we can see positive developments with countries that are changing their laws to make it easier for stateless children born there to get a nationality.
And then in situations like with the Roma communities it is also about breaking down social stigma and working to address historic problems in terms of how the community and the state have interacted. So there is a much bigger project of building social cohesion and breaking down exclusionary structures.
What are major obstacles and challenges to ending statelessness and supporting stateless people in Europe?
Laura van Waas: Probably the biggest challenge right now is the political culture and that the general environment in many countries in Europe is increasingly xenophobic and anti-immigrant. We run up against the same challenges as for the protection of refugees in Europe. Statelessness is often seen as a foreigner’s problem which means that even people who are born in the country and who's only possible tie is with that country are put in the bracket of foreigners. So, one of the big challenges is to make sure that stateless people are not treated as another group of foreigners who ‘need to go back to their country’, even if there is nowhere else for them to be. It is important that their specific situation is understood and is treated in a different way.
Christiana Bukalo, you are an activist in this field, what are your thoughts on the current institutional attempts to support stateless people and to end statelessness?
Christiana Bukalo: I agree that the field is very vibrant. Since I have been in contact with all of these organisations who are working on improving the situation, I understand how much is being done. I think what is missing might be the visibility not only of the topic of statelessness but also of the work that is being done in that area. Additionally, I think that there needs to be more of a collaboration between the different areas of engagement, such as people who work in law, in civil society organisations and also academics and researchers. Collaboration is one of the most powerful things especially if you want to enact change.
Christiana Bukalo, you are the initiator of Statefree, an organization that is building a platform to connect stateless people to each other and to organizations that work to improve their situation. How did this come about?
Christiana Bukalo: Due to a personal incident, I decided to start an in depth research on what was affecting my life. I knew by that time that the term for it was statelessness, but I wasn’t really familiar with it. In my documents I never saw the term itself, I only saw the letters 'xxx' that stand for an ‘unclear nationality’ and 'xxa' that are used to describe the status of stateless people. Through my research I got in contact with organisations like the European Network on Statelessness. My goal was to find a single source that gathered all relevant information on statelessness, but I noticed that what I was searching for does not exist. I figured that this was something that has to be co-created by collecting all the knowledge and experience there is in that field. What was missing was a hub in which all of those people working on the issue of statelessness came together, especially with people who are affected.
What do you want to achieve with your platform and what does it look like?
Christiana Bukalo: Statelessness is an invisible trait; you would not really notice a person that is stateless based on skin colour, age or gender. It is something that just happens everywhere and can happen to everyone. That is why I decided to create a space in which affected people and the organisations working on the issue could come together. A person like me should know that there is somebody who actually cares and that there are other people who are affected. The goal is for the platform to be a combination of a forum and social network: On the one hand it is a space where affected people can have a global conversation and share their stories, and organisations can share what they are working on. On the other hand we want to create a forum in which specific topics - like traveling as a stateless person for example - can be discussed and in which all of the information and experiences are connected so that it will be easier for affected people to find the information they need. The ultimate vision is to bring together stateless people and people in positions of power, so that the most crucial issues can be identified and solved together.
What political changes would you like to see or what would you like to achieve?
Christiana Bukalo: Essentially, I am noticing that there is this tendency of othering and of trying to protect a certain space and making sure that nobody else can enter that space. That becomes visible with borders and in law for example. Obviously, there is some concern and fear here. I would like to understand and address those thoughts and the things people are scared of. I believe that collaboration and conversation is especially important in those areas in which people have completely different opinions and perspectives. After all, there is no way to find a solution without both groups interacting with each other. Everything we do starts with an idea, and obviously the ideas we have at the moment have created the system we live in. Accordingly, ultimately, a mindset change is the most important thing we need: Thoughts for different laws. This is the only way we can create ideas and approaches for new laws.
Laura van Waas: I would like to see more recognition and empathy with the reality of statelessness from people in power. This could even be the person working in the local town hall putting people with no nationality on a pathway to improve their situation instead of treating them with suspicion or sending them away as someone with a problem that they need to resolve themselves. Because for instance if your child is born stateless, you do not necessarily know what that means. The child certainly does not, so it is about making sure that those people who have the responsibility in their roles do act accordingly. Meaning if someone cannot provide a document proving their nationality, offering assistance and putting them on a pathway to recognition with the legal advice that they might need.
Do you think the topic of statelessness should be more strongly addressed in civic and political education?
Laura van Waas: Yes, definitely. In all forms of education, it is important for people to think about their place in the world, what defines that and how they feel about it. I have taught about statelessness to people of all different ages, backgrounds and jobs for the last 15 years. For everyone, whether they are ten year old children or 65 year old senior UN-Staff, it is an enlightening thing to discuss statelessness as a way to think about the world. Just having a conversation about how citizenship is handed out, who misses out, what should then happen and whose responsibility it is, is so valuable. It is valuable for everyone in terms of understanding how the world works and not just to support stateless people.
Christiana Bukalo: I completely agree. What I have been noticing since starting my work in that area is that people actually want to listen. When starting Statefree I have been using a pen name because I wanted to keep my identity secret. Statefree was supposed to be a technical platform for people to talk to each other and was not supposed to be about me and my story. Things have turned out differently and I now see that people have an easier way to empathise with it and understand what it means to be stateless if they can connect it to a person. And what becomes very clear is that it is extremely important for people to understand that having a nationality is not a given, it is a privilege to have a nationality. And this is something that people just do not know, because it’s not thought of. That is also why education is important.
Laura van Waas: I think especially in Western Europe, if you say the word statelessness, people think of something very far away. They may be thinking of the Rohingya from Myanmar or some notion of the problem in other parts of the world. But what I have learned through my teaching experience is how local the issue actually is. If not statelessness then nationality questions affect many more people than you think. There have been a few students who actually discovered that stateless is the label that applied to their situation through their encounter with the topic in the classroom. One of these got back in touch recently because she has finally been able to naturalize in the Netherlands. Education is a really important strategy to understand that statelessness and nationality questions are problems that exist everywhere.
In conclusion: With which final thoughts would you like to leave the reader with on the subject of statelessness?
Christiana Bukalo: Having a nationality is not a given. And not having a nationality is a situation many people are just born into. Reflecting on the fact that you probably did not do anything to acquire a nationality at birth makes it clear that a person without a nationality also did not do anything wrong not to have it. It is something that nobody has a fault in. It is the system that decides whether you belong, or you do not. A second thought is that we all can play a part in making statelessness more visible. It is often underestimated how much can change by just simply talking about it. Even if you are not affected by it, the likelihood that a person you are surrounded with has never heard about statelessness is pretty high. We can all play a part by sharing the stories and amplifying the voices of stateless people.
Laura van Waas: I agree that it is important not to take citizenship for granted and to realize that for most people it is not something that is in their control. Statelessness happens to people. It is not a choice and often it is something that is very difficult for them to resolve. One of the big changes that I want to see is making sure that no child reaches the age where they can actually debate their own status without being set on a pathway to citizenship. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to realize, as you are growing up and discovering the world around you, not just that you are a little bit different from your neighbours and classmates but that there is no country that “wants” you. It is our responsibility to make sure that children grow up with a place in the world that officially recognizes them.