An urgent call to States, UN agencies, donors and other stakeholders to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and take sustained action to correct past mistakes and prioritise protecting stateless people’s rights and the right to nationality.
In June 2020, 84 civil society actors issued a joint statement ‘In Solidarity with the Stateless’ calling on: States, UN agencies, human rights, humanitarian and public health actors, donors and the media to address the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on stateless people and those at risk of statelessness. One year on, the concerns expressed in that statement remain largely unaddressed, with the situation of stateless people further deteriorating, partly due to failures to acknowledge and respond to their specific contexts and uphold their rights. Moreover, new concerns and challenges, particularly around vaccine inequity, have also emerged. The undersigned 106 civil society actors are deeply concerned that many States and other key stakeholders have been unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes and have failed to adequately prioritise and resource the practical steps that can and must be taken to protect stateless people and the right to nationality.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have witnessed the cost of institutional and public ignorance and structural violence towards stateless people (and those at risk of statelessness) and remain deeply concerned about the lasting detrimental impact on an estimated 15 million stateless people worldwide, and tens of millions whose nationality is under threat. As observed in the 2020 joint statement, the entrenched structural problems that stateless people and those at risk of statelessness face in ‘normal’ times contributed to their disproportionate suffering and exclusion during the pandemic. COVID-19 measures, including border closures and movement restrictions, discriminated against stateless people, who were also largely excluded from health assistance, emergency relief and economic support packages. Disruptions to birth and civil registrations affected access to nationality, while NGOs and community groups working on nationality rights issues faced serious disruptions to their operations and funding. As some leaders exploited the pandemic to grab more power, increase surveillance and derogate from human rights obligations under declared states of emergency, non-citizens and members of minority groups, including those rendered stateless in their own country, were increasingly scapegoated, vilified and targeted for hate-speech, arbitrary detention and even expulsion.
One year on, civil society groups have documented the catastrophic impact of the pandemic and State responses to it on stateless people and those at risk of statelessness. In particular, the June 2021 report ‘Together We Can: The COVID-19 Impact on Stateless People and a Roadmap for Change’ by the COVID-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund Consortium and the April 2021 ‘Situation assessment of statelessness, health, and COVID-19 in Europe’ by the European Network on Statelessness provide empirical evidence in this regard. These reports also flag emerging good practices in some States, which all States are urged to follow. Some of the main observations of civil society groups include:
- Stateless people and those whose nationality is at risk are being denied equal access to vaccinations in many countries, including in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central Asia, Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal, and some European countries, despite facing heightened risks of contracting the virus due to environmental determinants (e.g., inability to socially distance, lack of PPE, poor sanitation, working in exploitative and dangerous settings) and having been denied equal access to healthcare and relief.
- Access to healthcare remains a significant challenge, as stateless people are denied equal access to free or subsidised healthcare or health insurance in many countries, including the Dominican Republic, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Montenegro, Nepal, North Macedonia and South Africa. In Sweden, access to COVID-19 testing is contingent upon digital ID. In Kenya, Libya, Thailand and in Europe, where Romani communities face heightened antigypsyism, the lack of documentation is a barrier to accessing healthcare. Fear of arrest, detention and police brutality also undermine access. The mental health impact on stateless people of dealing with COVID-19 and its consequences is also a matter of serious concern.
- Ongoing delays and backlogs in civil registration and other vital procedures are also leaving stateless people in limbo and create new risks of statelessness. Such disruptions have been reported, among others, in the Dominican Republic, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Montenegro, Nepal, North Macedonia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Asylum, immigration, and statelessness determination procedures have been disrupted in several countries, including Bulgaria, Colombia, Germany and Ukraine.
- Exclusion from emergency relief due to lack of documentation persists in several countries, including France, Georgia, Kenya, Lebanon, Montenegro, Nepal, Serbia, the Netherlands, and the United States. In many countries, the inability to access safe, formal employment and the resulting consecutive loss of income have also been reported, pushing many stateless people further into poverty. Such people are confronted with the impossible choices of doing unlawful, hazardous and exploitative jobs, or seeing their families starve.
- Hate speech, intolerance, xenophobia, antigypsyism, and discrimination against minorities who are stateless or at risk of statelessness continue to rise, inter alia, targeting Roma communities in Europe, the Rohingya in Asia, those declared foreigners in Assam, the Bihari community of Bangladesh, Nubians of Kenya, Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic and refugees, migrants and stateless people in South Africa.
- Gender discriminatory nationality laws denying women equal rights to confer nationality on their children and spouses in countries such as Lebanon, Malaysia, Nepal and Saudi Arabia have precipitated family separations when foreign spouses and children have been unable to renew visas or enter the country, and have also increased the risk of statelessness among children born abroad. Amid an escalation of gender-based violence during the pandemic, gender-discriminatory nationality laws increase the obstacles faced by women seeking to leave abusive relationships when their own nationality or their children’s, is dependent upon that of their spouse or the father of their children.
- Stateless people face heightened risks of harassment, arrest and arbitrary detention. Stateless people in detention in several countries, including Australia, Malaysia and Thailand are at high risk of infection due to the inability to protect themselves through social distancing and preventative hygiene measures. Rohingya refugees are being denied access to UNHCR or asylum procedures and are at heightened risk of arrest and arbitrary detention. In several European countries, procedural safeguards and effective remedies to challenge immigration detention were hindered and the risks of detention becoming arbitrary increased.
Civil society responses have shown that the challenge of COVID-19 can be addressed through targeted, community-based action centred around stateless people’s leadership, participation and expertise. Consequently, we urge stakeholders to speak directly with stateless activists and communities, as well as CSOs working closely with them, and to study their research findings to better understand and respond to the pandemic’s devastating impacts.
However, without urgent attention, protection and intervention from States, UN agencies, human rights, humanitarian and development actors and donors, stateless people and those at risk of statelessness face irreparable harm, undermining progress made in addressing this urgent human rights concern over the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights our collective and individual vulnerability, bringing into sharp focus the paramount importance of always promoting, protecting and fulfilling everyone’s universal human rights, whoever we may be and whatever status we may have. In addition to demanding urgent and immediate action, the crisis provokes longer-term introspection and highlights the need for structural change. The time to build back better for the world’s stateless and those at risk of statelessness is now. We urge all stakeholders to take the following urgent actions:
- Acknowledging and remedying past failures to address and dismantle discriminatory and degrading laws, policies and practices, which deny and deprive nationality while excluding, marginalising and penalising on discriminatory grounds; as well as failures to listen, to involve and ultimately be accountable to diverse stateless communities in identifying and implementing sustainable, fair, human rights-based solutions to the rights deprivations they endure.
- Taking all necessary steps to ensure that stateless people are equally included in COVID-19 responses, that their particular contexts are recognised and addressed, their rights are upheld, and that they should not be penalised in any way, including by threat of harassment, arrest and detention, due to their lack of documentation or legal status, or any other aspect of their identity. Such steps should be taken, inter alia, with regard to vaccinations, healthcare, relief, livelihoods, education and civil registration.
- Mainstreaming the right to nationality and the rights of stateless people as institutional priorities, through learning about statelessness and how it relates to respective mandates and obligations; resourcing responses, including the important work of stateless communities and NGOs; reporting on performance through human rights, development and other monitoring mechanisms; and redressing the intergenerational legacy and intersectional causes and consequences of statelessness, including by ensuring access to justice and reparations for stateless people.
Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness – RedANA
Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
ASKV Refugee Support
Association for Legal Intervention (SIP), Poland
Baghdad Women Association
Bahrain Women Union
Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights
Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World)
Center for Development of Roma Community “Bairska Svetlina”
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Central Asian Network on Statelessness
Centro para la Observación Migratoria y el Desarrollo Social en el Caribe ( OBMICA)
Citizenship Affected People’s Network
Council of Minorities
Development And Justice Initiative (DAJI)
Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) Malaysia
Dominican@s por Derecho
E-Romnja – The Association for Promoting Roma Women’s Rights
European Network on Statelessness
Family Frontiers Malaysia
Focus Development Association (FDA)
Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD)
Free Rohingya Coalition
Fundación Cepaim Acción Integral con Migrantes
Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties
Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights
Global Network of Sex Work Projects
Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR)
Haki Centre Organization
Humanitarian Centre for Rights
Human Rights Centre
Human Rights Working Group (HRWG)
India ki Rasta Foundation
Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
International Commission of Jurists
International Detention Coalition
International Observatory of Human Rights
International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI)
International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific
Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh (JMMS)
Kasela Palu Group
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights
Kenya Human Rights Commission
Law Center of Advocates
Lawyers for Human Rights
LEFRIG Saharawi Collective Youth Association
MENA Statelessness Network (Hawiati)
Minority Rights Group International
Minority Rights Organization
Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)
National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN)
Nationality for All
Nelson Mandela University Refugee Rights Centre
New Women Connectors
Nubian Rights Forum
ODRI Intersectional Rights
Pakistan International Human Rights Organization
Persatuan Anak-Anak Daerah Belaga Kapit
Public Foundation – Legal Clinic “Adilet”
Refugee Council of New Zealand
Refugee Social Services
Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO)
Right to Nationality and Citizenship Network, India
Rohingya Human Rights Initiative -R4R (ROHRIngya)
Rohingya Human Rights Network, Canada
Rohingya Women Development Network -RWDN
Roma Active Albania
Roma Advocacy Network Netherlands
Roma Youth Organization “Walk with us -Phiren Amenca”
Ruwad Al Houkouk FR
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR)
Save the Children South Africa
Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town
Solidarity is Global Institute – Jordan (SIGI-Jo)
Southern Africa People’s Solidarity Network
Southern African Nationality Network
Sukaar Welfare Organization
Swedish Organization Against Statelessness
Taita Taveta Human Rights Network
The Arakan Project
The Canadian Centre on Statelessness
The Nubian Rights Forum
The Omani Association for Human Rights
Tirana Legal Aid Society (TLAS)
Women Peace Makers
Women’s Refugee Commission
World Council of Churches
Youth Sustainable Development Centre