By Nicole Spewak and Taylor Lindell

An article published in the German newspaper, der Zeit Online, tells the story of a man named Aleksandr B, who, with the fall of the Soviet Union, had to leave his homeland of Estonia in 1994.

“He comes from Estonia, but left the country in 1994 with a passport in his bag for a country that no longer existed,” der Zeit reports. “The Soviet Union had fallen and the new state of the Republic of Estonia did not want to recognize people with Russian last names as citizens. B. wasn’t Estonian enough. He left the country. He wanted to go to Germany to a friend. He made it to Austria, and landed in jail five times along the German border… since then, he lives in Austria, his “free air prison,” because he couldn’t go any farther than there, but couldn’t actually remain there either.”

Aleksandr B is a “stateless” person.

The United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) defines “stateless” as being without nationality or citizenship. This means there is “no legal bond of nationality between the state and the individual.”

Statelessness is a global problem that affects people across continents, denying them basic human rights. According to UNHCR, there are 10 million stateless people around the world today.

Specifically in Europe, statelessness rose following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and is an issue that has yet to be resolved.

The UNHCR said, “In Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Federation in the 1990s led to statelessness in the new countries that emerged. … Efforts to naturalize these people and to issue nationality documentation are under way, but the situations are not yet fully resolved.”

Currently in the European Union is a diaspora of 680,000 people like Aleksandr who legally belong to no country.

This population of 680,000 is approximately equal to the populations of Boston, Massachusetts or  Seattle, Washington.

Because the world today is one strongly reliant on the state system, outside of the state, people face multiple threats to their life and well-being.  These include being denied education, health services, property rights, employment, and identity documents.

This lack of official national identity leaves stateless people more vulnerable to crime, trafficking, and police abuse, leading to a lack of belonging.

Living as a stateless person in Austria, B. faced the struggles typical to those lacking a citizenship. He was unable to get a legal job, couldn’t open a bank account, and is restricted in his travel, which prevented him from attending his parents’ funeral.

Presented below are two case studies, one of Germany and one of Spain, which offer further insight into the stateless populations of two EU countries.

Case study: Germany

As of mid-2013,Germany contained 12,234 stateless people. Most of these are peoples of Roma or Turkish descent.

Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg is home to many of those of Turkish descent living in Berlin. Photo courtesy

The problem of statelessness in Germany in many ways ties back to Germany’s stringent citizenship laws. Citizenship in Germany used to be based primarily on descent. This left peoples without German parents ineligible for German citizenship.

This became a problem for Turkish people making their lives in Germany.

In the 60s and 70s, Germany invited guestworkers to the country to help with a labor crisis. The workers were to come and work for a contract period, and then return to their homeland. The original contract times were short, so the workers wouldn’t become too settled in the country.

However, after the initial work period of the Turkish workers was concluded, the Germans wanted the Turkish workers to stay and work in the country for longer. This pattern resulted in a larger number of Turks making their lives and raising families in Germany, but none had German citizenship.

Even to the third generation, Turks in Germany remained outside the benefit and protection of the state.

In response, Germany made modifications to its citizenship and naturalization law. Since 2000, a child of foreign parents born in Germany is able to receive German citizenship if at least one of the parents had their main place of residence as Germany for at least eight years.

Today, naturalization laws in Germany stipulate that people must  live in Germany for at least eight years, have an adequate knowledge of German, a clean record, commitment to the constitution, and the ability to financially support themselves. to become naturalized.

Despite these revisions, it remains difficult for foreigners to integrate into German culture and society. However, more can now access the security that a citizenship provides.

Flüchtlings-Camp am Oranienplatz
The refugee camp at Oranienplatz in Berlin, Germany. The sign reads, “No person is illegal.” Courtesy

More recently in Germany, refugees have raised protests related to their treatment in the country. Although refugees are stateless people are two distinct groups, the categories sometimes overlap. Most visually, a group of stateless people have been camping out in tents for over a year in Oranienplatz, a square located in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Kreuzberg is comprised mainly of Turkish residents.

These refugees are protesting the lack of rights they have within the country under refugee status and the living standards they have as refugees, which they believe are sub-par.

Case study: Spain

The Saharawis earn a chance at freedom, an opportunity to form an independent identity. A Moroccan invasion crushes those hopes. Such is the fate of the Western Saharan population.

The Saharawis are an African people group from Western Sahara, just southwest of Morocco. Like Morocco, Western Sahara was once a Spanish colony, but Spain eventually abandoned Western Sahara, giving rise to a Moroccan invasion. A guerrilla war followed, but most Saharawis had already relocated to Algeria.

In 1991, the United Nations ended the guerrilla fighting with a ceasefire. The agreement stated the UN would facilitate a vote about the future of Western Sahara, but that vote has not happened. Many representatives blame this on disagreement about who should vote.

Today, many Saharawis live in refugee camps in Algeria. Students in these camps learn Spanish and Aerobic, which may suggest hopes for asylum in Spain. Which, according to Spain, is possible.

Spain is one of few countries with a separate asylum process for stateless people. In practice, this means asylum applications for stateless people are directed to a specific staff group.

During the asylum application process, asylum seekers are either released into the community or housed in a reception center. In the reception centers, these individuals come and go freely for up to six months. After that time, they may apply for an extension. Additionally, all stateless asylum seekers receive an allowance, access to healthcare and social work services. After granting asylum, the Spanish state helps new residents find housing and employment.

Unfortunately, few asylum cases move through the Spanish court system. Spain publishes very little about the cases, so the public is left wondering about the court’s effectiveness. Many Saharawis feel betrayed by the Spanish government. Pierre Galand, President of the European Conference of Coordination and Support to the Saharawi People said Spain “betrayed Western Sahara people in their legitimate aspiration to independence.”

Forward motion

Upcoming this fall on Sept. 15-17, 2014, UNHCR is hosting “The First Global Forum on Statelessness.”

The convention is in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the first United Nations Convention to address statelessness: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. A team of 300 academics, government representatives, international organizations, NGOs and stateless people will discuss steps to combat the issue of statelessness.

The main themes of the conference are stateless children, statelessness and security, and responses to statelessness.