New hope for stateless people in Ukraine?
Statelessness arises when an individual is not recognised by any state and thus does not hold any nationality. With no rights or record of one’s life, statelessness is a legal anomaly that leads to the individual’s invisibility and non-existence in political, legal, economic or societal systems.
There is no exact number of stateless persons in Ukraine today owing to the absence of proper data collection. The number has grown over the last six years due to the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where only 43% of newborns have obtained birth certificates. As of today, the number of stateless persons in Ukraine lies somewhere between 35,000 and millions. According to the UNHCR Ukraine website, the total estimated number of those who do not possess any identification documents is more than 35,600. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Global Dataset suggests that 3% of the Ukrainian population do not belong to any country, which translates into 1,237,000 people who are not allowed to receive medical care or access financial services, hold an official job or position, or rent or own their own home. Without documents, it is impossible to obtain state social protection or receive a pension, which puts many stateless Ukrainians in a situation which makes survival itself difficult.
Stateless people or people at risk of statelessness are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, consisting of socially excluded people such as single elderly people, Roma, people released from prison, people internally displaced due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, or who were born during the days of the Soviet Union and didn’t manage to change their passports after its collapse. Those who are stateless or face the risk of statelessness rarely decide to apply for citizenship or consult the authorities regarding their situation. Lawyers at the Right to Protection, a Ukrainian NGO that provides legal help and support to the most vulnerable in Ukraine, state that people applying to have their stateless status recognised often do not have an appropriate level of education to do it alone or simply lack the financial means to ask for professional legal help. Thus, statelessness becomes a life sentence that is passed down for generations.
In Ukraine, the reasons for losing one’s nationality or never having one derive from its history: it is a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the military conflict in Donbas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, stateless people are one of the most vulnerable groups to be hit by the consequences of the epidemic. According to a recent report by the organisation Right to Protection, socially vulnerable individuals have no opportunity to receive timely medical assistance in the absence of identity documents. Furthermore, they cannot participate in state programmes or receive free medicines, cannot have medical examinations or get recognition of their disability or chronic disease. In fact, all stateless people bear the heavy financial consequences of the crisis without sufficient funds for medicines and medical supplies, food and hygiene items, etc. The report states that 31% of respondents said that their resources will not cover even food supplies until the end of the lockdown, while about a half of those surveyed said that they have enough, but only for food.
On 18 July, Ukraine took a huge step towards creating access to the universal right to a nationality enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 15) for some of the most vulnerable members of society when President Zelensky finally signed Law No. 693-IX on the Procedure for Determining Statelessness, bringing it into force on 18 October 2020. The newly introduced law regulating the status of stateless people presents a clear and coherent process for the recognition of those without passports. Importantly, the law makes it possible for people to apply for recognition of their stateless status even if they are in Ukraine illegally and have no identity documents. The procedure clearly sets out concrete deadlines for applications and the steps to be taken in case of rejection; a novelty for Ukraine’s often complicated and dysfunctional regulatory system.
The procedure will allow thousands of stateless people who have lived in the shadows for many years finally to obtain an identity document and not only become full members of society, but also exercise the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all without exception by the Constitution of Ukraine. It is fair to say that Law No.693-IX brings many positive features to the Ukrainian legal model and contributes to Ukraine’s attempts to build a system which respects human rights and improves the rule of law. The adoption of the law on the Procedure for Determining Statelessness will make Ukraine the 21st country in the world, and the fourth among post-Soviet states (after Latvia, Moldova and Georgia) to establish such dedicated procedures. It most definitely opens a window of opportunity for a better future to those who have been invisible for far too long, but more targeted and effective communication is needed to ensure a better future for all.
There are two challenges remaining today in relation to the newly adopted Law. First, is the legal aspect: the absence of a bylaw which means that it is still up to the state and Cabinet of Ministers to set the procedure for consideration of the applications. Given Ukraine’s history of a rather slow and apathetic institutional system, one can only hope that the bylaw follows soon and the government can be held accountable and be transparent in its determination to recognise and accept the most vulnerable in society. Another challenge, however, is to provide information about the Procedure for Determining Statelessness to those who need it most at a time when access to medical facilities or social benefits can save lives. The majority of those who are stateless or at risk of statelessness lack the education to understand these legal developments, do not have internet access or simply become too desperate to reach out for any information after years of getting no result. It is important that, until the law becomes enforceable, local NGOs and the media distribute information through their channels, while international attention and support could help steer the process into a more active phase where more serious efforts are taken to identify those who are stateless or at risk of statelessness.