Navigating the unknown – life as a stateless person in Budapest

Thursday 25, August 2011 BUDAPEST, August 25 (UNHCR) – “Where did you get this from?” is the usual response Mariana receives when she shows her humanitarian residence permit and grey-covered travel document for stateless people in the health insurance office, the unemployment office, in banks, in shops, at job interviews […]

Thursday 25, August 2011

BUDAPEST, August 25 (UNHCR) – “Where did you get this from?” is the usual response Mariana receives when she shows her humanitarian residence permit and grey-covered travel document for stateless people in the health insurance office, the unemployment office, in banks, in shops, at job interviews or anywhere else. “Just no one understands what statelessness is”, the 56-year-old former Soviet-citizen said.

Mariana and her son were among the first four people to be officially recognised as stateless by the Hungarian government some four years ago.  Four years later, the treasured identification documents which prove her right to reside in Hungary and access social services are so little understood that life for Mariana remains a daily struggle.

Hungary is among a handful of countries around the world that have established a procedure to assess and confer formal status on stateless people who are not recognised as citizens of any country.  The process is part of Hungary’s efforts to implement its obligations under the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.  UNHCR is urging other governments around the world to do the same and sign up to the two UN treaties, as part of a global campaign to raise awareness and combat statelessness which affects millions of people.

Born in what is today Russia, Mariana arrived in Hungary in 1991 with her two sons and diplomat husband just months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Her husband was reassigned to the Embassy of Ukraine and Mariana also received a Ukranian stamp in her old Soviet passport which she used for the next decade.

When her first marriage ended Mariana married a Hungarian and continued to live in Budapest, unaware of the procedures in her homeland to acquire new citizenship documents. It was not until her second husband died in 2002, that Mariana applied for a settlement permit in her adopted home and after a long bureaucratic process spanning three countries discovered she had become stateless. “It went very slow”, she recalled. “Only for a ‘no’ answer from Russia, meaning that I was not their citizen, I had to wait three years.”

The formal ‘no’ from Russia at least gave Mariana the proof she needed to be recognized as a stateless person in Hungary. Having the formal papers helps, but the scant knowledge about her status in the community means challenges at every turn.

“The most difficult thing is to find a proper and legal job”, said Mariana even though her status gives her the right to work.  Before leaving Russia she was a cartographer, but now expects only casual cleaning jobs from friends and acquaintances to help make ends meet. “Most employers have no idea what the status stateless means and do not believe that I do not need a work permit”, Mariana told UNHCR.

Even local government officials are still navigating the way on dealing with stateless people and Mariana says she routinely receives different answers to the same question from local officials.  “They run to the back to consult their colleague on “the stateless woman” and in the end they come back with a different answer and rule”, she explained.

Another barrier for Mariana is that her humanitarian residence permit is now valid for only one year, instead of the three years she initially received.  “The humanitarian residence permit does not help you to build your life, either with or without the travel document”, she sighed.

UNHCR’s Protection Officer for Hungary Ágnes Ambrus agrees more needs to be done to specify and inform people about the right and entitlements given to stateless people in the country.

“Pieces of information are buried in different laws and regulations but it is not clear what these people could have access to and how,” Ambrus said.  “Social assistance provided when someone is first recognized would also help alleviate the various stresses on the lives of stateless people.”

“Hungary has really led the way in Central Europe in putting in place a process to recognise stateless people, but more could be done to  smooth the path to citizenship,” continued Ambrus.    Very few stateless people obtain citizenship in Hungary. Of the 71 people recognized as stateless by Hungary over the past four years only 9 have become citizens.

Mariana would like to bring her unusual status to an end and acquire the nationality of Hungary – a place where she has lived for 20 years, married and raised her children.  But she is caught in a catch-22 situation.  Until she has a long-term job and can prove a more stable residential address, she cannot meet the criteria of guaranteed livelihood for Hungarian citizenship.

“I did not want to become stateless; the situation has just sucked me in as a vacuum-cleaner. I want to get out of it, because until I do not, wherever I will go, I will not belong anywhere, I will just be no-one”, Mariana said.

By Eva Hegedus in Budapest, Hungary