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Europe has both the most information about stateless populations and the most developed set of standards relating to nationality and discrimination. Nonetheless, statelessness is still prevalent across the region. As of the end of 2016, UNHCR estimated that close to 600,000 people were stateless in the European region, a figure made up primarily of linguistic minorities in a number of post-Soviet states, Roma, and more recent refugees, asylum seekers and migrants primarily from outside Europe.
A significant number of stateless minorities were created in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Europe’s largest stateless population is in Latvia, recording more than 240,000 people, largely Russian-speakers, who after Latvia’s independence found themselves classified as ‘non-citizens’: while they enjoy most of the same rights as other Latvians, they cannot vote or work in the civil service. There is also a large number of stateless Russian-speakers in Estonia (more than 85,000) and a much smaller number in Lithuania. Ukraine similarly hosts some 35,000 stateless people, mainly former Soviet citizens, who have significantly fewer rights than those in the Baltic states.
In the Russian Federation, the 90,000 people still identified as stateless by UNHCR mostly migrated from other parts of the Soviet Union and failed to acquire citizenship during the post-Soviet period; following a change of law in 2002, they were considered to fall in the same category as any other foreigner, and for one reason or another they have not benefited from various efforts to facilitate naturalization. Among this total are people of many different ethnic groups, but especially those who are of low status, such as Roma; or who were the subject of forced relocations during the Soviet era, including Meshketian Turks, originally from the border zone with Turkey in southwest Georgia. Existing patterns of discrimination towards minorities are therefore replicated to some extent among the stateless population.
Stateless Roma are spread across a number of European states, especially in Russia, Slovakia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia; some who fled as refugees from Yugoslavia remain stateless in other parts of Europe, such as the significant numbers of stateless Roma in Italy. Many thousands have no administrative existence at all, lacking birth registration or any other official recognition from the State. They thus live entirely outside of any form of basic social protection or inclusion. The plight of stateless Roma thus creates an extreme version of the general discrimination faced by the Roma community in many European states, including difficulties with access to housing, schooling and health care.
The other sizeable population of stateless persons in Europe results from migration, largely from outside the region. Some of these people who arrive in Europe were already stateless minorities in their country of origin: for example, there are many stateless Kurds among the Syrian refugee flows, but often not identified as stateless as well as refugees. Others have become stateless as a result of their journeys: while the legal situation has not changed as a result of their flight, their documents have been lost or destroyed during the journey, and they are unable to provide sufficient evidence to persuade the consular authorities of a country of origin of their nationality. These people are now becoming significant minorities in their own right in European countries: for example, in Sweden, the figures reported by UNHCR for stateless persons in the country climbed from 20,450 at the end of 2013 to 36,036 at the end of 2016, mostly among refugees. In light of this total, the 198 stateless people reported in Greece at the end of 2016 is not a plausible figure.
As elsewhere, stateless migrants and asylum seekers can find themselves in a limbo due to lack of recognition in their host country. Where European countries provide access to naturalization, these stateless people will mostly be able to acquire nationality in their host countries. However, those who are not refugees and who arrive in countries that do not have statelessness determination procedures may remain without any legal status. At the same time the state cannot deport them because no other state will recognize them as its nationals. As millions of refugees have already entered Europe and more continue to come, fleeing conflicts and persecution elsewhere, ensuring an inclusive and open citizenship regime will be essential to avoid creating sizeable stateless minorities. Although the majority of European states have some safeguards in place to confer nationality on otherwise stateless children born on their territory, many of these safeguards are incomplete and do not meet the standards set by international law.
Photo: Children at a Roma settlement in Slovakia. Credit: Blue Delliquanti.