Despite having cancer, Olena Miryasheva was denied access to health care: she could not be registered at the outpatient clinic, could not obtain a prescription, and could not even undergo a medical examination which would have been free for a Ukrainian citizen.
In May 2019, her condition worsened, and in October she died. But even then the problems faced by her family did not stop. Her daughter, Anna, was barely able to obtain a death certificate and perform cremation – her mother’s last wish.
“My mother struggled to receive documents for 25 years,” says Anna. “If she had access to the public health system earlier, perhaps the cancer could be diagnosed and treated at the early stages.”
Olena was born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. But when the former Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, she was among hundreds of thousands of people left with invalid passports across Central Asia, who became stateless.
While she subsequently lived in the Russian Federation and then in Ukraine, where she gave birth to her daughter, none of the states recognized her as a national. Neither she nor Anna, who was born in Kyiv, were able to obtain a residence permit to be able to remain in Ukraine legally.
That impasse was removed this week with a law signed by the president of Ukraine. Adopted by parliament on June 16, 2020, it formally establishes a statelessness determination procedure (SDP) to help an estimated 35,000 people who are either stateless or at risk of statelessness to emerge from legal limbo.
Drafted by the parliament’s Human Rights Committee, with inputs from experts in the president’s office, civil society and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the law will allow people without a nationality, like Olena and Anna, to apply to be recognized as stateless and to obtain a temporary residence permit, valid for one year.
The temporary residence permit establishes the holders’ legal residency. After two years of continuous residence – during which they will enjoy basic rights, such as freedom of movement, access to work, education and health care – they will be able to apply for permanent residence. After five years of permanent residence in Ukraine, stateless people are eligible to apply for naturalization.
“This law will transform the lives of thousands of people who have been living in the shadows,” said Pablo Mateu, UNHCR’s representative in Ukraine. “We stand ready to provide support during the implementation which shall be concluded within three months after its entry into force,” he added.
The adoption of the law came under a commitment Ukraine made while accessing two UN Conventions on Statelessness in January 2013: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
As the law is implemented in coming months, UNHCR will offer its assistance to Ukraine’s State Migration Service, providing training to key staff in Ukraine’s 25 provinces and access to free legal aid. In addition, while the government will provide free legal aid, as foreseen in the law, UNHCR stands ready to support applicants in the initial stages of the implementation of the statelessness determination procedures. It will also seek to raise awareness among stateless people and those at risk of statelessness of the possibility to apply for recognition of their status.
Worldwide, statelessness blights the lives of millions of people. By adopting this law, Ukraine becomes the 21st country in the world to establish dedicated statelessness determination procedures.
While it is tragically too late to help her mother, Anna hopes that the law will allow her to move forward after a lifetime spent living on the margins.
“Without a passport I have never been able to enter university. I can’t get proper employment, even though I have been working in online marketing for a few years now. I can’t use state public services, nobody really cares about me,” she says.
“But with this law, I will have a chance to become a normal person. I will travel, get proper employment, grow professionally. But first and foremost, I will finally get a sense of how it is to be someone who exists.”
Original reporting by UNHCR.