Bulgarian civil society organisation Foundation for Access to Rights – FAR is launching a new public awareness campaign to highlight the plight of stateless people living in Bulgaria. The campaign tells the stories of Inshirah, Sager, Winfred, Taher and Christo. They all lack a nationality, but have lived in Bulgaria for many years. All of them have chosen to build their lives in Bulgaria and have embraced the country as their home. However, for them to become citizens, the assistance of institutions and changes in the legislation are necessary. Bulgaria has introduced a statelessness determination procedure, which, provides a legal framework for Bulgaria to establish that no country recognises them as their citizen and to grant them legal status. However, this still doesn’t give them the right to work and access health care.

Recently, the Bulgarian law provided the possibility to obtain a ‘continuous’ residence permit after a person is granted statelessness status. Positively, this gives recognized stateless people the right to legally reside in Bulgaria, protecting them from being treated as undocumented immigrants and facing the risk of detention. However, the residence permit includes important restrictions, which denies them the opportunity to finally achieve a real sense of belonging or to contribute on an equal basis with the rest of society. According to the Law on Labour Migration and Labour Mobility, people with a ‘continuous’ residence permit are not given access to the labour market and cannot sign a labour contract. This rule has some exceptions, but stateless persons are not included on the list of exceptions. Holders of ‘continuous’ residence permit are also outside the scope of the health insurance system and thus health care to stateless persons is not covered by the National Health Insurance fund.

“Our call is for the Bulgarian state to amend the list of exceptions and to continue to implement positive changes which will help stateless persons to rebuild their lives and contribute to society” – said Valeria Ilareva, Chairperson of the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR). “Appropriate amendments to the Law on Labour Migration and Labour Mobility and the Law on Health Insurance are needed so that stateless people in our country can work and pay for their health insurance, which will allow them to lead a dignified and fulfilling life as equal members of our society.”

Joining the call, Chris Nash, Director of the European Network on Statelessness, a pan-European alliance of over 140 civil society organisations, academics and prominent lawyers said:

“Imagine what life would be like if you did not have a passport and were not considered to belong anywhere. Stateless people face numerous difficulties in their daily lives, while their struggles often pass by unnoticed. The stories of Inshirah, Sager, Winfred, Tacher and Christo speak powerfully to the human impact of statelessness. We hope that their voices can help persuade the Bulgarian government to prioritise as a matter of urgency, the strengthening of protection for stateless people in line with international good practice and the recommendations put forward by our member organisations in Bulgaria.”

Inshirah is a 57 years old gynaecologist, born in Palestine. Over thirty years ago, she arrived to Bulgaria to study at the Medical University in Sofia, specialising in gynaecologist. After graduating, she returned to Gaza and started working as an obstetrician, quickly rising to become the head of gynaecology. Like most Palestinians, Inshirah is stateless. In 2018, the worsening of the war forced her to return to Bulgaria, where she applied for international protection. She did not choose to use the statelessness determination procedure, because under the Law on Foreigners, while the state considers the application, she wouldn’t be allowed to work, to have health insurance and even to obtain temporary permission to stay in the country, something that is granted to all asylum seekers.

Sager comes from Kuwait, where he was born stateless and undocumented. He graduated from the Medical University of Sofia and has been living in Bulgaria for 12 years. In September 2018, he decided to apply under the new statelessness determination procedure. On 3 January 2019, when he appeared at the Migration Directorate to check on the progress of his application, Sager was abruptly detained with no explanation. He was taken to one of the detention centres for illegal immigrants in Busmantsi, where he remained for over a month. He was released with the legal assistance of FAR. Sager has still not received his legal status, leaving him in legal limbo unable to continue his life and practice as a doctor.

Winfred has been living in Bulgaria since 1980 and has never left the country. He graduated from the Technical University of Sofia and was planning to return to Tanzania, where he would start working for a company that sent him to study in Bulgaria. However, due to the complex political situation in his country, he lost his Tanzanian citizenship. There is no country to which he can be returned. Like many other stateless people, he has been detained for removal and then released back in Bulgaria on five separate occasions since 1998. Winfred’s dream is to pass on his knowledge and to open a school where he could teach mathematics. Winfred is an example of how Bulgaria wastes human potential by not providing documents and the right to a legal residence to hundreds of people.

Tacher is a Palestinian refugee from Syria. He is 17 years old and stateless. Tacher and his family came to Bulgaria under a refugee relocation program. Five months after their arrival in Bulgaria, they received refugee status. This gives them the right to study and work and eventually to obtain Bulgarian citizenship. Tacher is working towards obtaining a degree and has in a very short period successfully learned Bulgarian. He plans to continue his studies at the Technical University in Sofia and to eventually get a job as an IT professional.  His case is a good example of how people can contribute when they have the opportunity to access education and work opportunities.

Christo is 59 years old and has lived in Bulgaria for 27 years. He was born in Banja Luka in the former Yugoslavia, now situated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He had a Bulgarian mother and a Bosnian father. He became an orphan when he was very young and never received citizenship documents. His beloved wife and two children were killed in the Yugoslav war and he decided to flee to Bulgaria in 1992. He crossed the Serbian-Bulgarian border on foot, without any documents. Subsequently, he found a job in the Iliyantsi market in Sofia. In 2015, he was detained for four months in Busmantsi. Thanks to the legal assistance from FAR and the support of the mayor of the village of Cheshnegirovo, Plovdiv, he was able to receive an address. He acquired hope that he will someday receive an identity document, but that has not yet been accomplished.

NOTES

  1. The European Network on Statelessness (statelessness.eu) is a civil society alliance of organisations and individual experts committed to tackling statelessness in Europe. ENS currently has over 140 members in 40 countries. ENS was founded as a coordinating body and expert resource for organisations working to promote the right to a nationality. ENS believes that the right to a nationality must be respected and that the human rights of people who lack a nationality – stateless people – must be protected.
  2. The videos with Inshirah, Sager, Tacher and Winfred are available at the Youtube Channel of FAR.
Waiting to belong: Why Bulgaria must do more to protect stateless people