Friday

3rd Feb 2023

Trapped inside Europe: Undocumented migrants unable to leave

An unknown number of migrants in the EU are caught in a legal limbo, denied basic rights in some member states and unable to return to their home countries.

Some attempt to go home but are apprehended at the borders and sent back to the member state where they are made homeless because they do not legally exist on paper.

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  • Unretournable migrants in Europe have no legal status and no way of going home (Photo: Zalmai)

“My life is catastrophic,” 29-year old Hagop, who arrived in Belgium with his mother and sister from Turkey as a small child, told this website by phone.

An ethnic Armenian, Hagop, who does not want to reveal his last name, says Turkey refuses to recognise his existence. Belgium does not recognise him either.

Caught between the two, he says he’s been denied higher education, has no right to work, no right to residence in Belgium, and cannot return to Turkey despite attempts.

“They give me no chance, no chance, no chance … no chance,” he said.

Hagop’s story is not unique.

Pro-rights groups often describe EU migrant policy-making in terms of "fortress Europe," where the idea is to keep irregular migrants from making it into the EU.

The same could be said for those seeking to leave.

As people are caught in legal and administrative webs that are unable to issue them any documents, a subgroup of migrants known as the “unreturnables” has emerged over the years.

The legal complexities and diverging approaches by national authorities vary widely across member states.

Some fall under a "tolerated stay" category, which means the official postponement of the return or removal order gives them the permission to stay pending their return with some additional rights.

Others get the same orders but no rights, while others get no orders and no rights.

In the UK, such people can be detained indefinitely, while others are sent to war zones despite the inherent risks.

Jacob, a 34-year-old Somalian national, was released four weeks ago from the Harmondsworth detention centre, a facility run by the American private security firm Geo Group.

He had spent over two years at Harmondsworth where he said he witnessed people attempt to take their own lives.

“They took my liberty for two years and two months. I still don’t understand why they detained me for that long,” he told EUobserver in a phone interview.

Jacob’s ordeal had started long before when he arrived as an undocumented migrant in 1994.

With no papers, he was trapped in the UK because of Somalia’s warring factions. But in April 2008, he agreed to return to Mogadishu after having spent 10 months at the UK Colnbrook immigration removal centre.

He was told his travel safety to Mogadishu would be guaranteed, but the two G4S security guards who had escorted him from the UK allegedly abandoned him in Nairobi.

“As soon as we get off the plane, they said ‘We are not coming with you.' They said they would be kidnapped or shot at. I said: ‘How about me, how about my safety?’,” he recalls.

He was taken to a small plane by Kenyan immigration and robbed soon after arriving at Mogadishu’s coastal airport.

“I couldn’t argue with them because I was thinking maybe I was going to get shot,” he said of the two thieves.

Spotted wondering dazed about the airport by African Union soldiers, he was told to re-board the same plane and return to Nairobi.

But the flight took him to Berbera, the de facto capital of Somiland where he was kidnapped.

His abductors wrapped his head in a bed sheet and forced him onto a bus.

He later managed to escape and eventually made it back to Nairobi, where the UK high commissioner, having heard his ordeal, bought him a ticket to London Heathrow airport.

Three years later, he found himself once again in a detention centre. He is now taking the UK to court for unlawful detention.

Jerome Phelps at the UK-based Detention Action, an NGO working for migrant rights, says many people like Jacob cannot be deported because they cannot get travel documents due to dangers and legal barriers.

“There is this commitment to detain people for as long as it takes in order to deport them - especially ex-offenders - because of political pressure on the issue,” he said.

Dozens more similar testimonies were collected in a report published earlier this week by rights groups from the UK, Hungary, Belgium, France, and the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

The 102-page report notes unreturnable migrants should not be detained if they cannot be returned. It recommends granting them temporary permits so they can work and access basic rights, like healthcare.

The EU, for its part, lacks any legal framework that defines and deals with unreturnable migrants.

The European commission says persons with unclear citizenship or identity and who are not asylum applicants fall under national legislation dealing with residence permits.

“This area is not harmonised at EU level,” said a commission spokesperson.

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