By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain is locking up stateless people for long periods even though there is nowhere they can be deported to, campaigners, lawyers and academics said on Thursday as they called for a strict time limit on detention.
Stateless people, sometimes referred to as "legal ghosts", are not recognized as nationals by any country. As such they are deprived of the basic rights most people take for granted.
The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) estimates several hundred stateless people are living in "hidden misery" in Britain, at risk of destitution and exploitation.
Many are subject to "prolonged and pointless detention" as Britain tries to remove them even though no country will accept them, ENS director Chris Nash said.
An ENS report published on Thursday said Britain was the only EU country without a set time limit on immigration detention and called for the introduction of a 28-day limit.
One Sahrawi man told ENS researchers he had spent a total of nearly four years locked up, having been detained eight times in 18 years.
"I am very frustrated," said Muhammed, who came to Britain as a minor.
"I believe that the Home Office does not know how to handle cases like mine. It is total chaos. Clearly my removal is not imminent."
Sahrawis originate from the disputed region of Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Many members of the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them, live in refugee camps in Algeria.
Figures show 108 stateless people were detained in Britain last year - up from 17 in 2009, the report said. But it added that the true number was higher as some stateless people are recorded as being of "unknown nationality" or from countries which do not recognize them.
The Home Office (interior ministry) could not comment on individual cases but said no one was held indefinitely.
"People are detained for the shortest period necessary and all detention is reviewed on a regular basis to ensure it remains justified and reasonable," a spokesman added.
"FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS"
In 2013, Britain introduced a procedure allowing stateless people to apply for recognition as stateless, providing a route to legal residency and a chance to rebuild their lives.
However, ENS said that as of April there was a backlog of more than 800 applications, with some applicants not having heard anything for more than three years.
Nash said many stateless people were "falling through the cracks".
"Failure by the Home Office to put in place effective systems to identify stateless persons leaves some of the most vulnerable individuals exposed to repeated and lengthy detention," he added.
The Home Office said the backlog had significantly reduced in recent months, but did not give a figure.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has launched an ambitious campaign to end the plight of some 10 million stateless people worldwide by 2024.
Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, the UNHCR's representative in Britain, said the government must protect stateless people from arbitrary detention.
One man told ENS how he had been detained for several months this year even though he has always lived in Britain.
"My mother was British and so I think was my dad," Okeke said. "I do not know where the (Home Office) wants to deport me. On my papers they wrote 'nationality unknown'."
Okeke said he had lost contact with his family as a teenager after fleeing years of domestic abuse and had no birth certificate.
ENS, which brings together charities, lawyers and academics, said statelessness should always be assessed when a decision to detain someone was being made.
Anyone considered at risk of being stateless should be helped to apply for recognition as such rather than be detained, it said.
The report also said detention should always be used for the shortest period and called for an end to unlimited detention.
(Reporting by Emma Batha. Editing by Katie Nguyen and Astrid Zweynert.)