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Statelessness Q&A: Canada helps ex-Dane out of Bermuda triangle

News Stories, 29 August 2011

© UNHCR photo
Jens Hansen took an oath of citizenship in Hamilton, Canada earlier this year as his wife and two sons looked on.

BEAMSVILLE, Canada, August 29 (UNHCR) Earlier this year, with his wife and two sons proudly looking on, Jens Hansen took an oath of citizenship at a government office in the city of Hamilton on Canada's Lake Ontario. But there was one big difference between him and the others taking the oath that day the 47-year-old had been officially stateless for more than two decades. Born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and a Danish father, Hansen took the nationality of his father. But in 1989, when he was 25, the young man discovered that he had lost his nationality. He ended up moving to the British overseas territory of Bermuda, where he met and married Carolynn. They eventually moved to her native Canada, where Hansen was given residency rights. But until January 10 he had no nationality a status shared by what is estimated to be up to 12 million people around the world. The new Canadian citizen has not suffered much for being stateless, but for many people in the world it means they cannot access many of the rights that most people take for granted. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, UNHCR on August 25 launched a campaign aimed at reducing the numbers of stateless people worldwide and getting more countries to accede to the two UN conventions on statelessness. Meanwhile, Hansen reflected on his situation in an exchange of e-mails from his home in Beamsville with Ottawa-based UNHCR Public Information Associate Gisèle Nyembwe. Excerpts:

How did you become stateless?

I became stateless because I had not renewed my Danish citizenship at the age of 22. I was unaware of having to renew my citizenship, although it did state this in the back of my passport. The problem was I'd never lived in Denmark and couldn't speak Danish. I only spent a Christmas weekend there when I was seven. I was born in Dordrecht, Holland, but took my father's nationality, which was Danish. He did not spend much time in Denmark either, being an expatriate all his life. We lived in Nigeria, Iran, Holland and England.

How did you find out that you were stateless?

I found out when I landed a job for a printing company in Bermuda in 1989. I was living in England at the time, aged 25. I paid a visit to the Danish Embassy in London to make sure everything was in order before I started my new life in Bermuda. I walked up to the front desk and showed the nice lady my passport and asked her if there was anything I needed to do. She started to speak to me in Danish, but I soon stopped her and said I didn't speak a word of it. She gave me a look of surprise and immediately pulled my file. A few minutes later she told me I was no longer entitled to citizenship since I hadn't reapplied for it when I was 22.

However, she noticed that I'd been issued with a new passport when I was 23. She said this had been a mistake. She took my passport, punched it with holes and that was that! I was now a man without a country. I applied a few weeks later for a British certificate of identity from the Home Office in London, since I was a resident of the United Kingdom. This allowed me to travel to Bermuda a year later.

How did being stateless affect your life?

Life in Bermuda was fantastic, but the issue of being stateless was always at the back of my mind. I also knew that my British certificate of identity was only valid for five years. I returned to London in 1995 to renew it, but my application was turned down since I was not a resident of the UK. I returned to Bermuda, but was unable to leave the island for the next six years.

I had no travel documents and was marooned on an island only 22 miles long and two miles across at its widest point. Bermudans call their tiny country, "the rock," and make regular trips by plane to get away from its claustrophobic atmosphere and avoid "rock fever." I wasn't able to do this. My only escape was to go scuba-diving. My wife and two sons occasionally travelled to Canada to visit relatives, leaving me behind.

What did you do to try and remedy the situation?

My father worked tirelessly, writing to his local member of parliament in the UK, to the Danish Embassy, the Home Ministry and even the Human Rights Society in London, but to no avail. I did not meet any of their criteria. Dutch citizenship was not an option; I spoke to the Dutch consul in Bermuda, only to be turned down. I discovered that nationality legislation in the Netherlands stipulates that a person born before 1985 derives nationality from their father only . . . I couldn't apply for Bermudan status since my parents were not from Bermuda.

Did you ever think that your status would never change?

I felt sure that the situation would change when I decided to move on from Bermuda. I was married to a Canadian and, after the birth of our second son, we felt it was time to move on. I applied for entry into Canada without a passport. I was extremely fortunate the whole process only took a few months. My wife and sons left Bermuda in the spring of 2001 and it took until November of that year before I could join them after receiving the necessary documents to get me into Canada as a landed immigrant.

On arriving in Toronto, I remember the look of surprise on the faces of the Canadian immigration officers when they realized that I was stateless. They had never come across a situation like mine. They wondered if I had broken any laws, if I was a criminal. No, I was just an ex-Dane.

How important is having a nationality for you?

Before gaining Canadian citizenship, I had spent my whole life as a foreigner in whatever country I lived in. Even in the country of my birth, I was still a foreigner. To be recognized as a citizen of a country is a huge deal for me. I now have rights that I never had before. I can finally vote for the first time and I'm taking more interest in politics and important local issues. Being a citizen means having a voice that counts. Who knows what my new life as a Canadian citizen will lead to? I am also free to travel anywhere I want to. I couldn't even get into the United States, which is only half-an-hour away from my home. I am a citizen of Canada, and I belong. I have been extremely fortunate, even blessed, living in this country. Canada has been very good to me and I shall be very good to Canada!




UNHCR country pages

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

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