UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging Governments worldwide to pay urgent attention to the plight of millions of stateless people and to follow a set of recommendations the organization has issued today to ensure their coverage in the COVID-19 response.
“Millions of people around the world are denied a nationality and the legal rights endowed with it. They do not exist on paper and most often live on the fringes of society. Our worry is that at such a critical time, in the middle of a global pandemic, they now are at great risk of being left behind in the response,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Without citizenship, stateless people often do not have access to essential services, including health care, and now may also be precluded from or face obstacles in accessing coronavirus testing and treatment. Others may refrain from accessing services for fear that their legal status can put them at risk of detention or deportation.
“We must repeat that exclusion does not benefit anyone, least of all the global effort to contain the virus. The pandemic can only be beaten if everyone, regardless of their legal status, is included in the response. Nobody can be protected unless everybody is included, and that means including often invisible, stateless populations,” said Grandi.
Some 3.9 million stateless people appear in the reporting of 78 countries but the true number is likely to be far greater. Without legal rights and access to services, statelessness leaves many politically and economically marginalized, discriminated against and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
In many countries across the world, stateless people live in sub-standard and inadequate sanitary conditions which can compound the risk of outbreaks. Limited by their legal status, many work in informal sectors, which can also hamper adherence to public health protocols such as self-isolation and physical distancing.
Considerable numbers of stateless people are also being held in prolonged pre-removal detention on the basis that they are not considered as legal residents and there is no country to deport them to. In addition to the violation of their right to liberty, they now face the prospect of increased risk of infection, as doctors and medical associations around the world have raised concerns about the potential of COVID-19 to spread within these centers.
UNHCR is also concerned about the potential for mitigation and response measures to fuel xenophobia and discrimination for those perceived to be at risk of contagion, given a majority of the world’s known stateless population belong to minority groups and are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.
“This virus is exposing both the devastating consequences of statelessness and the urgency of the need to resolve it. The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right and in this time of crisis it can mean the difference between life or death,” said Grandi.
To ensure the protection and inclusion of stateless people in the public health response, UNHCR has issued guidance on policy and good practices.
Some of these recommendations include: Making health services, including COVID-19 testing and treatment, accessible for all regardless of citizenship status or legal resident status, Creating a firewall between health and immigration services during this period to enable stateless people to access services without fear and risk of arrest or detention, Ensuring stateless people’s inclusion in COVID-19 information campaigns, considering location, language and communication preferences, Designating civil registration activities, including birth registration, as ‘essential’ services, allowing their continuation and minimizing the risk that people may end up stateless owing to a lack of legal proof of identity or entitlement to nationality, Refraining from placing stateless people in pre-removal detention and considering the release of those detained for reasons related to their stateless status, Ensuring that response measures do not fuel xenophobia and racial discrimination and Extending financial support packages to all who are resident on the territory who meet the vulnerability criteria, regardless of legal status.