* senior writer bij MO*
* expertise: Midden-Oosten & migratie
The absurd life story of stateless Salim
Salim* was born in Saudi Arabia, the country where his parents also saw the light of day. Beyond their genes, he unfortunately also inherited their statelessness. Belgium recognised Salim as stateless, but refuses to grant him a residence permit. Salim cannot return — nor can he stay.
Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.
It is a drizzly and dark day when Salim* and I meet over a coffee in a Flemish town. We spoke earlier as, based on his testimony, MO*grapher Justine Corrijn and I drew up what statelessness means for the winter issue of MO*. We had talked to Salim on the phone, phoned his lawyer, contacted the Nansen Association and other aid organisations, read reports and looked up figures.
But the incredible existence of Salim — who is stateless against his will — is best told in a long conversation at a small table in the corner of a coffee shop. It is a story that exposes the absurdity of the dictates of bureaucracy. Those who have the unlikely misfortune of being born paperless, like Salim, have to jump high to even come close to citizenship.
Salim slides a document towards me. At first glance, it is an international travel passport. But it is actually not, Salim says. Because passports are for citizens with proof of identity. And the latter is precisely what he lacks from birth. ‘Consequence: I have no citizenship and I belong to no country,’ he says.
The tiny booklet on the table is a travel document for Palestinian refugees. It defines Salim’s life course until today. ‘Palestinian’ is written there in black and white as a nationality. Yet Salim, like his parents, never set foot on Palestinian soil. Like his parents, Salim was born in Saudi Arabia.
When Salim’s grandparents exchanged their native Gaza for Saudi Arabia in 1950, they had no idea that in doing so they were laying down a stateless fate for themselves and their descendants.
How it began
To understand Salim’s statelessness, it is necessary to turn back the clock more than 70 years, to the year 1948. That year, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the Israeli state independent. ‘My grandparents lived in Gaza then, but moved to Saudi Arabia two years later, in 1950. The only piece of paper they had in their pocket was that of the Mandate Territory of Palestine.’
Palestine had been under British mandate after the First World War. But with the unilateral creation of Israel and the subsequent brief war with Arab countries, administrative relations shifted. Transjordan, today’s Jordan, occupied part of the West Bank. Egypt, until the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, would vouch for the mandate of the Gaza Strip.
‘With their departure, my grandparents officially became Palestinian refugees. Their residency rights to Palestine expired, as did their right of return. The only papers that regulated their existence from then on were the travel documents they received from Egypt.’
As Palestinian refugees, Salim’s grandparents did not receive a residence permit from Saudi Arabia. They passed on that missing residence permit, along with the Egyptian travel documents, to subsequent generations. Salim’s parents and Salim, his siblings, inherited their grandparents’ statelessness.
Right of residence via work permit
Salim did receive a birth certificate from his native Saudi Arabia. But even that certificate states in black and white that he is a Palestinian and not a Saudi citizen. Saudi Arabia grants citizenship to those who have lived on Saudi soil continuously for 10 years. However, Palestinian refugees are the exception to that rule — they are not eligible for citizenship.
‘It is a consequence of an Arab League political principle on the right of return for Palestinian refugees,’ Salim explained. ‘Granting Saudi citizenship would erase the right of return for Palestinian refugees.’ At the same time, Saudi Arabia does not grant an indefinite right of residence for foreigners, Salim says. ‘If you want to live in Saudi Arabia as a foreigner, you have to have an employment contract that gives you residence rights for 1 year. You have to renew that each time.’
The sponsor decides
Under the hotly debated Kafala system in the Gulf states, migrant workers and their residence rights depend on their employers. Even the fate of Salim’s family has always depended on employers, the so-called sponsors, in Saudi Arabia. ‘Our right of residence has always been linked to employment. An employer can extend a residence permit but also abolish it.’
Even if he wanted to, Salim cannot go to Palestine, the country whose nationality he holds.
Those who lose their right of residence as stateless people are almost literally pushed off the face of the earth. In Salim’s case, the paper links that could link him to two other places on earth are completely worthless. Even if he wanted to, he cannot go to Palestine whose nationality he holds. Nor can he go to Egypt, which is the administrative custodian of his travel document.
How that can happen? It has to do with Palestine’s statehood status, which is a political bone of contention worldwide. Palestinian statehood is recognised by the United Nations, though. But Belgium, like most European countries, does not recognise Palestine. ‘Its impact on my life is as absurd as the fact that there is another third state interfering with my nationality. How absurd it is that Egypt, with which I have no connection whatsoever, ‘proves’ that I bear the nationality of Palestine, a country that does not exist.’
Salim opens his travel document and slides it towards me again. ‘Here,’ he points out,’ it says here how far I get with these papers: “This travel document does not allow its holder to travel to or transit in the Arab Republic of Egypt unless he or she has gained entry through a transit or return visa”.’ In other words, Egypt grants Salim a travel document that does not allow him to enter Egypt itself. Precisely because he has no identity card, his mobility is hugely restricted.
“It is almost impossible to travel. The paper mountain is huge, the regulation deadly.” As soon as he turned 18, he was denied access to Saudi education. ‘That’s why I went to Malaysia to get my engineering degree. Every year I had to return to Saudi Arabia to apply for a new visa for Malaysia. At the same time, I had to watch closely that I did not lose my residence permit for Saudi Arabia during my study time in Malaysia.’
Nationalist labour policy
For a long time, the family managed to hold its ground within its destiny of statelessness in Saudi Arabia. But over the past 10 years, the Saudi state’s economic tide began to turn and oil revenues declined. Saudi Arabia responded with a stricter fiscal regime. This greatly affected the many migrant workers on its territory. ‘Foreign migrants and their family members, as well as our employers, suddenly had to pay extra social taxes for foreign workers.’
Employers saw their orders dwindle. On top of that, Salim says, a nationalist wind was blowing through the labour market. Read: Saudis were given priority on jobs. That combination made access to the labour market noticeably smaller for non-Saudi workers. From then on, things went downhill, says Salim. ‘I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day and was only paid for eight hours, at a lower wage. Complaining about it didn’t help because there were queues of replacements for my job. Other Palestinians, Syrians and Yemenis took them with pleasure and less pay.’
Salim remained silent and continued to work in inequality. For his right to stay also depended on his employer. Meanwhile, at the insistence of his employer, he desperately sought other work — to no avail.
Departure into uncertain future
‘After a year and a half of looking for other work and bumping into walls, I knew that there is no future in Saudi Arabia.’ Salim took 5 months to reach Belgium. ‘I arrived here on 31 January 2019.’
After long delays in his asylum application process, Salim received a negative decision in April 2021. As a stateless person, he does not fall under the jurisdiction of the General for Refugees and, yes, Stateless Persons. And so the CGRS does not grant him refugee status or subsidiary protection. The CGRS reasoned that Saudi Arabia is a safe country and therefore the office cannot provide international protection.
Statelessness, the CGRS said, does not give grounds for asylum in Belgium. This is due to a gap in Belgian legislation. Belgium currently has no specific administrative procedure or body for recognising stateless status.
‘At the same time, I cannot go back. A mere administrative fact because I am stateless.’ Another example of absurdity. ‘I do not get a right of residence from the Belgian state. That means I must and can return. Only in my case, return is based on a hypothesis that can never be true.’
Funnily enough, the CGRS also included this as an important consideration in its motivation for the negative decision. The CGRS cannot legally grant Salim a right of residence while acknowledging that Salim cannot return. Regularisation, the CGRS suggests, is the only way forward for Salim.
Procedure after procedure
Salim, meanwhile, was recognised by Belgium as a stateless person. This too was not evident. Because Belgian jurisprudence is deeply divided on the question of whether or not Palestine is a state, and whether one can hold Palestinian nationality. But recognition or not, it gives no right of residence and thus does not help Salim advance any faster.
In 2014, our country signed the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. According to that treaty, everyone has the right to citizenship. The current Belgian government also promised in the 2020 federal coalition agreement to find a solution for stateless people, like Salim, who cannot return to their country of origin. The promise remains dead letter so far. ‘Belgium is not acting on its own word,’ says Salim.
Salim now hopes to get international protection through an application for humanitarian regularisation of his Kafkaesque situation. Meanwhile, he also appealed to the Council for Immigration Disputes against the CGRS’ refusal decision.
Despite the endless hurdles to a normalised life, Salim continues to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. His foreign diploma, an academic bachelor’s degree as an ICT electronics industrial engineer, was recognised by the competent authority NARIC-Vlaanderen. He has also already completed two courses in our country: a Dutch language course at the language institute of the University of Antwerp and a VDAB course in ICT and infrastructure management.
Still more foolishness
Because he still has an appeal pending, Salim is allowed to work. In 2021, he went to work as a help desk engineer at the Koca Association, an organisation dedicated to education and care for people with learning disabilities. But even before that, he had to overcome several administrative hurdles. ‘My employer, Koca, is part of the education sector. In that sector, you cannot just work with an orange card. Koca had to seek permission from the Immigration Department to employ me. But the DVZ gave unfavourable advice for my employment.’
Funnily enough, says Salim, at the same time, the then state secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi introduced an activation plan to make it easier for asylum seekers to find work. ‘My lawyer provided the Immigration Department with a comprehensive resumé of my educational track record: the recognition of my degree, the two courses I took, the impossibility of return,’ he says. He stuck Mahdi’s activation plan to it. Their opinion remained unfavourable.
‘Without direct debit, he won’t get a new work permit soon.’
Thanks to creative solutions, Koca still managed to give Salim a contract. ‘It has been quite a hassle for my employer to employ me. They didn’t have to do that.’
‘His current work permit is still valid until 11 April,’ says Caroline Van Damme, chairperson of the board of directors of Koca. ‘We are definitely asking to keep him as an employee because we consider him a strong asset and colleague.’
Awaiting more certainty, Salim is waiting for a place on earth — again and again.
*the name is hidden for privacy reasons
Correction after publication
Salim’s asylum application was finally rejected on 19 December 2022 and he was expelled from the reception network a week later. With that final asylum rejection, his right of residence ends and thus he also loses the right to work.
When his work permit finally expires on 11 April, Salim will become structurally homeless and will be without income. It’s Kafka all over again. The regularisation application (9-bis) he made in April 2021 is before the Immigration Department. But that does not change his unlikely precarious situation.
Tine Danckaers is a senior writer at MO* with expertise in the Middle East and migration. She regularly travels to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Turkey and Iraq, places that have gained a special place in her heart. Tine looks for the people who fall between the folds of the hard news, who live outside the big systems or who, as victims, are right in the middle of it.
Justine Corrijn (she/her) is a designer with a passion for investigative journalism. After studying graphic design, she attended the master’s programme Non Linear Narrative at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. There, she immersed herself in artistic research and non-linear ways of storytelling. As digital editor at MO*, Justine tries to build a bridge between journalism and design.
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