Stateless Ukrainians are fighting a lost battle for security and recognition as Europe mobilizes to accommodate the swelling number of Ukrainians departing the country – already over four million. Stateless Ukrainians, who number around 40,000, are denied access to basic rights and have been the subject of widespread discrimination as they seek safety abroad. They are not recognized as nationals by Ukraine or any other state under the operation of its laws. Regardless of nationality, color, or ethnicity, European states must act decisively within their international legal commitments to ensure that all refugees are protected.
People in former Soviet countries who fell through the cracks in new nationality regulations after the disintegration of the Soviet Union became stateless. Certain minority groups were particularly vulnerable as a result of racism and ethnic prejudice. Roma, for example, is one of Ukraine’s largest groups of stateless people – and one of Europe’s most discriminated against.
The lack of nationality – and the ability to establish one’s legal identity as a result – has serious repercussions. Nationality is frequently referred to as a “gateway right,” as it is difficult to obtain other essential rights without it. Statelessness makes it difficult to find work, get healthcare, get an education, or find a place to live, as well as to seek legal remedies for rights breaches. It’s as if stateless people don’t exist because they lack a legal identity.
These dangers arise when stateless persons become refugees. Despite being a vital aspect in the assessment of a refugee or asylum claim, statelessness status – which should alone be grounds for protection – is frequently neglected in immigration proceedings. Stateless people have frequently been jailed indefinitely [PDF] if their refugee or asylum claim is denied, simply because no state recognizes them as citizens to which they can be “returned.”
Stateless Ukrainian migrants are having to address these issues head-on as Europe faces “the fastest expanding refugee crisis since World War II,” according to UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi. “I’m concerned that if I decided to leave, I wouldn’t be able to cross checkpoints or borders because I don’t have documents,” one stateless Ukrainian lady said as her home was attacked. I’m also afraid they’ll take my children away from me since I don’t have documentation that I’m their mother.”
However, stateless refugees face more than just a lack of legal protection. Racial and ethnic minorities, such as the Roma, whose overlapping racial and stateless identities make them doubly vulnerable to discrimination, are finding it especially difficult to obtain the protection they require. Many have told horrible stories about sitting in camps for days without food or drink, while their Ukrainian citizen counterparts were greeted with open arms.
The chronic disenfranchisement of stateless persons is partly due to states’ lack of comprehensive legal frameworks addressing statelessness, which is a violation of their international legal commitments.
Many European countries, to be sure, have put in place safeguards against statelessness. A mechanism for recognizing stateless people and giving dedicated stateless status exists in ten states. Other countries have fragmented procedures, but none that provide a comprehensive framework for both determination and protection. Ukraine’s new framework, which was established in 2021, contains a method for determining stateless status as well as a naturalization process.
These measures, on the other hand, do not entirely meet governments’ legal commitments, nor do they provide adequate protection for stateless refugees. Only 55 stateless Ukrainians have been recognized as stateless as of December 31, 2021, out of 737 applicants. They’ll have to wait another three years to petition for naturalization and acquire full access to their privileges. That process has now been halted. Meanwhile, most European countries lack suitable legal frameworks for the protection of stateless individuals, including all but one of Ukraine’s close neighbors. Even those with extensive frameworks fail to implement them, leaving stateless individuals – notably ethnic minorities – unable to exercise basic rights and susceptible to arrest.
Stateless people have been left out of Europe’s refugee response plan, which provides emergency protection to Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents. Despite the fact that Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania have pledged to accept all refugees, including stateless people, experts are concerned that without special protections, stateless people would be left behind. Importantly, these haphazard approaches ignore the fact that many stateless refugees face greater risks as a result of their ethnicity or race – Roma migrants have been denied entry to Hungary and Slovakia, and they have faced widespread prejudice in Moldova.
To meet their legal obligations toward stateless people, European governments must make the appropriate policy and legislative changes. Statelessness is not a new issue in Europe, but it has taken on new importance as the number of Ukrainian migrants continues to climb. The first step is to provide stateless Ukrainians with immediate, non-discriminatory protection. However, long-term, systemic change is required to ensure that stateless persons in Europe have access to their most basic right — the right to a nationality.