As we pass the one-year mark of the pandemic, nations are putting their full attention towards distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to their citizens, however, stateless people have been left out of the global conversation. Addressing the question of stateless people during the pandemic is extremely important to help prevent the spread of the virus, as COVID-19 does not stop at national borders or care about differences in citizenship. In response to this issue, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken up the initiative by providing recommendations to national governments as to how restrictions could be loosened to include stateless people in health care programs.

What Does it Mean to be Stateless?

According to the UNHCR, a stateless person is someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” In other words, a stateless person is someone who does not hold citizenship in any country. The procedures in identifying stateless people vary from state to state, however, in many countries the laws do not recognize the citizenship and rights of individuals despite living or being born in a particular country. As such, many stateless people live in segregated and marginalized areas and are often not sufficiently provided with the right to education, employment, and health services.

As per the Appendix 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to nationality and to belong to the state where a person is born is a basic human right. Nevertheless, statelessness can occur for several reasons, one of which being when people are forced to leave their countries of origin as refugees. For example, after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the formation of new  nation-states, 30,000 Roma became stateless. Other reasons as to why statelessness occurs include “gaps in nationality laws” and the creation of new states and borders. Similarly, individuals may lose their national status as a result of denaturalization, which is when a state revokes the citizenship status of said individual. This phenomenon happened with the Muslim minorities in India who were unable to prove that their ancestors were citizens of the country due to the lack of documentation.

Statelessness and the UNHCR

One of the goals of the UNHCR is to mitigate statelessness, thus, with the support of national governments, NGOs, and various civil society organizations, the UNHCR helped establish two international conventions addressing statelessness. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defined statelessness and established that stateless people have the right to minimum standards of treatment, education, employment, and housing.  Preventing incidences of statelessness is the main target of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These two agreements became essential sources of international law after there were 49 new accessions made between 2011 to 2015.

Despite these conventions, modern society still faces the problem of statelessness. There are ten million stateless people around the world of which five hundred thousand live in Europe. Stateless people globally include, but are not limited to, Syrian stateless refugees, Kurds, the Bedoons from Kuwait, stateless people in Thailand, Roma, Bengalis from India, and the Rohingya. The increased number of stateless people is a result of nation-states’ non-adherence to international laws and violations of international legal standards. Even though some states have used international laws to incorporate stateless people into their national systems, those who are granted nationality are not always guaranteed their human rights, and instead remain marginalised, segregated, and discriminated against.

UNHCR Policy Recommendations for the Protection of Stateless Communities

The status of statelessness has been a contributing factor to the deteriorating wellbeing of some people during the COVID-19 outbreak. As they often represent the poorest and most marginalized communities within states, stateless individuals have limited access to essential resources like clean water, health care, and sanitation services and are thus at a significantly high risk of infection. For instance, some stateless people risk detention or deportation in some countries if they are identified by immigration enforcement officers when seeking healthcare services. As COVID-19 has rapidly spread across borders, the UNHCR recommended policies on how governments should tackle and prevent the spread of the virus among stateless communities.

The UNHCR recommends that regardless of a person`s citizenship status, everyone should have access to health services. The organisation recommended to healthcare providers to handle the information of their patient’s stateless status with discretion when treating them. For governments, the UNHCR suggests that they provide as much information as possible to the stateless people about how to reduce the spread of the virus and where they can get access to health services. To tackle the potential issue of a lack of identification, the UNHCR recommended implementing waivers when providing documents so that everyone can have access to healthcare services. In addition, the UNHCR has recommended that governments provide financial support packages to all stateless people.

In some countries, such as North Macedonia, the stateless Roma have been faced with the issue of not being provided health care – especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. They have been excluded from the right to health care services due to not having a nationality. Despite the government`s promises that a new law will be implemented and will grant temporary documents, it has not happened yet. This has had a negative impact on the lives of the Roma, compounding on their already poor socioeconomic status in North Macedonian society. Ultimately, despite the UNHCR`s recommendations for governments to loosen the restrictions in providing health care services for stateless people during the COVID-19 pandemic, some states have not made significant changes. This has led to further marginalization and the violation of the human rights of some stateless people which is further hindering the establishment of effective policies, strategies, and programs for social inclusion. [1]  To tackle this issue, governments should take more serious steps to provide equal access to health services for everyone who is living in that country.