State of the stateless: Meet Steven, a man who can’t work because he doesn’t exist

The United Nations estimates that there are 12 million stateless people worldwide. Steven is one of them. He lives in Britain and cannot be deported – but neither can he get a job, a bank account, a driving licence or an education. Emma Batha reports

Three years ago Steven walked into a police station in Cardiff and asked to be arrested, even though he hadn’t committed any crime. When the police refused, he asked if it would help if he insulted an officer. They refused again.

Steven had hit rock bottom after a series of events had left him destitute, and he believed a police cell would be preferable to another night sleeping rough.

His predicament boils down to this: no country recognises him as a citizen.

“Being stateless is like being an alien. Anywhere you place me on the planet, everyone will still say, ‘You are not from here’,” he says. “Just talking about it makes me feel anxious.”

With no nationality, he has no rights to the basics that most people take for granted such as healthcare, education and employment. He cannot travel, open a bank account, get a driving licence or even get married.

Steven, now 32, believes he was born in Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique. His mother vanished when he was 18, and he never knew his father.

“I haven’t got a record of my birth, and that’s the beginning of all my problems. I have nothing to state who I am or where I’m from.”

Steven – not his real name – spent his childhood travelling with his mother, a vendor who sold goods in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. She told him almost nothing about her family, but he believes she was from Mozambique and may have fled because of the civil war there.

At 15, Steven’s mother left him with a relative in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo. He last saw her in 2000. No one has heard from her since. As he approached adulthood he tried to obtain ID, but could find no record of his birth.

He left Zimbabwe after becoming involved with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which had been set up to challenge President Robert Mugabe. As the authorities cracked down, he fled to London on a fake passport.

British officials rejected Steven’s application for asylum and told him to leave, but with no documents he was unable to do so. While he awaited a solution, he settled in Cardiff, where he worked at the city’s rugby stadium and in warehouses. No one ever asked for identification. He fell in love with a Ugandan student and they set up home and had a baby.

“It was a normal life like anyone would dream of. Wake up, go to work, come back, play with my daughter. It was perfect,” he says.

But his world collapsed in 2010, when his girlfriend finished her studies and was told to return to Uganda.

“However hard it was, I felt it was best for my daughter to go with her mother. I had no place to stay and no nationality to pass on to my daughter. There is no way I’m having a child take on my statelessness.”

At the same time, British employers started checking IDs. Steven lost everything and ended up in a homeless shelter. Friends turned their backs on him when he said he was an illegal immigrant.

Steven has written countless letters to the Zimbabwean and Mozambican embassies, the official registrar in Harare and even the hospital where he believes he was born. The Zimbabwean Embassy said he would have to go to Harare to search the records.

“One solicitor who’s an expert on Zimbabwe clearly stated to me that my situation is very, very bleak,” he says. “Me being here, there’s no way I can find out the facts for myself. I would have to be able to travel and I can’t.”

Most stateless people in Britain end up in destitution or detention, even though there is nowhere they can be deported to.

There is growing international recognition that the world must do more to protect people like Steven. The United Nations, which estimates there are up to 12 million stateless people globally, will launch a major campaign this year aiming to eradicate statelessness within a decade.

Asylum groups in Europe are meanwhile calling on their governments to provide stateless people with a way to legalise their residence, giving them similar rights to refugees.

Britain introduced a stateless determination procedure last year, and Steven is waiting to hear if his application has been successful.

“What I’d like most is an ID with my picture on it. I’ve never had one before,” he says. “I would work hard and go and find my daughter.”

If Zimbabwe provides documentation proving Steven is Zimbabwean, he says he would worry about returning to a country where he no longer knows anyone. “But at least I would know that I am a Zimbabwean. I would have an ID. I would be part of a people.”

The worst outcome would be to remain undocumented. “I would be an illegal immigrant forever. I’d be left to roam the streets. One day I’d die and no one would come to my funeral.”

Steven has now spent 10 years in limbo, but tries to remain positive. He lives with a new girlfriend and her two boys, whom he is clearly devoted to. Unable to work, he looks after the children. He also volunteers at the crisis centre where he used to sleep.

Articulate and bright, Steven spends a lot of time in the library – his “second home”. He would have loved to train as a quantity surveyor, but statelessness has robbed him of opportunities.

However, there is one dream he won’t let go of: “I want my daughter to have that sense of security and belonging that I never had.”

Emma Batha is a journalist at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Year 5 class teacher vacan...

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Learning Supp...

General Cover Teachers - GRIMSBY

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are working with a number of ...


Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Description Randstad Education i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week