Image courtesy of Anadolu Agency. 

In the midst of a pandemic, the stateless are left unprotected to ensure their right to health, increasing the risks for an already vulnerable population.  

In the midst of a pandemic, States have the duty to ensure access to health for all the population. However, what happens when 15 million persons around the globe are stateless? How can those who lack a nationality access a cumulus of rights, including the right to health? How can States address this, in light of COVID-19?

All of these questions can take useful advice from several guidelines issued recently that shed light on considerations that must be taken into account in responses to COVID-19. The first document, elaborated by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) contains useful policy recommendations and good practices on the impact of COVID-19 on the stateless population. A second reference is the text on the 14 Principles of Protection for Migrants, Refugees, and other displaced persons in the COVID-19 Pandemic, endorsed by over 1,000 international experts. The third document is the urgent call to States, donors and other stakeholders to promote and protect the rights of stateless persons in their COVID-19 responses, launched this week by 84 civil society actors. A fourth useful tool is the document on Involving stateless people in Europe’s COVID-19 response  published by the European Network on Statelessness. Finally, the Inter‐American Principles on the Human Rights of all Migrants, Refugees, Stateless persons and Victims of Human Trafficking and the Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas today resolution of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, together with the statement of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on COVID-19 and human rights, provide criteria to adequately frame responses to COVID-19 for the protection of stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness.

Children wearing masks and looking through a chain link fenceThe aforementioned instruments share a common approach in which States owe an obligation to the stateless to ensure their enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, which encompasses not only access to health services, but also food, sanitation, safe shelter and education.  As such, these texts recognize that the stateless, together with those at risk of statelessness, face increased racism and xenophobia while trying to access critical health services and information on prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Some of the relevant recommendations contained in these documents are:

  • Responses to the pandemic must not to discriminate on any grounds including citizenship, documentation or migration status, and should ensure health services are accessible for all;
  • Discussions on responses and their execution must guarantee the participation of stateless persons, to ensure their perspectives are included;
  • Measures must include the identification of stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness and their inclusion in information campaigns to keep them informed on critical information, healthcare and relief;
  • States should consider birth and death registration services as essential services;
  • Measures should guarantee the extension of the validity of nationality and residency documentation for the duration of COVID-19 related measures;
  • Services for the submission of statelessness determination procedures should allow for the written or electronic submissions;
  • Detention of stateless persons must be prohibited and a consideration for release should be considered for those in detention; and,
  • Financial support packages must be extended to all those who reside on the territory who meet the vulnerability criteria and regardless of legal status, including stateless individuals.

As COVID-19 continues to evolve and responses fall short in their capacity to include vulnerable populations, the stateless and those at risk of statelessness are left behind. Nationality, a basic precondition to link an individual and a State, is a necessary element in the life of every person in order to enjoy a wide range of rights. The stateless are automatically stripped of the capacity to access basic rights, among them, the right to health. The previous recommendations shorten this gap and contribute to ensure that those who were already living invisibly before COVID-19 are not at greater risk due to the pandemic, but rather, included and protected by the measures adopted by States to respond to it.