For 24 years — over half her life — Railya has been stateless. In February, she finally "came out of nothingness," and became a French national. Traveling, finding a job, voting… Suddenly, all these things were possible.
Whenever she tells her story, Railya Abulkhanova relives the painful memories from her past as a stateless person. In an interview with VICE News, she agreed to "stir up old memories" and share her experiences, in the hope her testimony might bring to light the issues faced by those who don't belong anywhere.
According to the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, one stateless child is born every ten minutes. UNHCR interviewed 200 stateless children for its I am Here, I Belong: the Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness report, which was released on November 3 as part of the agency's campaign to end statelessness by 2024.
"We centered our campaign around children, because statelessness can have very damaging consequences for them. They feel that they are different from others, that they don't fit into the community. It can prevent them from attending school or accessing healthcare," UNHCR spokeswoman Céline Schmitt told VICE News.
The UN estimates that 10 million people worldwide have no nationality — the same as "the combined population of Norway and Denmark." A majority of them live in Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Latvia and the Domincan Republic.
Many children born to a stateless parent are often condemned to statelessness themselves. While lack of nationality can often be traced back to war and conflict, many children are born stateless because of discriminatory laws targeting minorites and ethnic groups, and laws that prohibit women from transmitting nationality to their children.
Born in Kazakhstan in 1973, Railya had a Soviet passport as a child. At the time, there were two types of residence obtainable in the region with this passport — temporary and permanent. When she turned 17, Railya relinquished her permanent residence in Kazakhstan in order to obtain temporary residence — known as "propiska" — in Russia, where she planned to study. Like many former residents of the Soviet Union, Railya found herself stateless when the USSR collapsed the following year.
Now independent, the former republics of the Soviet Union each adopted their own nationality legislation, and in many cases awarded citizenship to permanent residents. At the time, Railya had been a temporary resident for nearly a year, and had no idea how much this status would come to impact her life. "We didn't believe the USSR had imploded, we thought it would re-form," she told VICE News. "I was young, I wasn't thinking about nationality."
After graduating, Railya left Russia to find work in the former Soviet nation of Uzbekistan. "Once again, I didn't really understand that it had become a foreign country," she explained. Still able to travel using her Soviet passport, she settled in the capital Tashkent.
But in 1999, a series of car bomb attacks in the capital triggered tighter security measures and "a stricter passport régime." For the first time ever, Railya inquired about her legal status and obtained a residence permit.
Circa 2000, Railya filed two applications for citizenship in Uzbekistan, where she had gone on to obtain a PhD in French Linguistics and was now working as a French professor. Both were rejected.
"When I went to renew my residency permit with the immigration police, I would meet other stateless people in the hallways," she remembers. "Everyone used to say that obtaining citizenship in Uzbekistan was impossible."
'They didn't know what to do with me'
In 2009, Railya met a Frenchman. They married in Uzbekistan later that year. France issued her with a visa and a travel pass — the same, she said, as those dispensed by the embassy in the case of misplaced travel documents.
As soon as she set foot in France, Railya contacted the prefecture [local district authorities] in the northern French city of Lille, diving headfirst into the bureaucratic complexities of the French system. "They didn't really know what to do with me. There aren't many stateless people over here," she said.
According to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless people (OFPRA), nearly 1,000 people are registered as stateless in France.
Thus started months of back and forth between the local district authorities, the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII) and OFPRA. In the end, Railya was able to obtain a residence permit also recognizing her statelessness.
The French administration also gave Railya a travel pass, "a sort of a small booklet with pages made out of card." Railya vividly remembers the moment she was handed the booklet, recalling how the official apologized for its "ugliness."
Railya was eventually able to return to Kazakhstan to visit her family using the booklet, which served as a passport of sorts. But returning to her home country was nothing short of an obstacle course. First, her 77 year-old mother had to travel 125 miles to procure an official invitation letter that had to be sent to her daughter. Only then was Railya able to apply for a visa.
The ordeal continued along the way, as it became apparent that many police officers had never encountered the French travel pass before. "There were no direct flights, and were made to wait two or three hours at each and every border," she said.
'That fear was always in me'
Another major difficulty for Railya was finding a job. "When I was asked my nationality during interviews and I replied 'stateless,' people had no idea what I was talking about," she said. "Every time I'd have to explain and say there was nothing to worry about."
Like many other non-Europeans who land in France, Railya had to renew her residence permit every 12 months during her first few years in the country. "Whenever anything happened, I was completely stressed," she remembered. "That fear was always in me."
One day, speaking to someone during one of her visa renewals, she found out that, as a stateless person, she did not have to wait four years of marriage to petition for French citizenship. In 2011, she filed a first application, which was denied because she didn't have a job at the time. "It was a vicious circle. I couldn't find a job because I was stateless, and I couldn't stop being stateless because I didn't have a job."
In 2015, she filed a new request — this time as the spouse of a French citizen — and in February, her request was accepted. "After the call from the prefecture, I couldn't think straight for two days. The only thing that came into my mind was that song 'Free' by Stevie Wonder," she said laughing. "It finally dawned on me, Now I can do this! And that…"
"There are relatively easy measures that states can implement to eradicate statelessness in the future, said Schmitt, describing such measures as "inexpensive."
UNHCR has already urged states to reform laws prohibiting mothers from transmitting nationality to their children, to afford citizenship to all those born on their territory, if they would otherwise be stateless, and to encourage host countries to dispense birth certificates to children born in exile.
According to the UN, 4 million stateless people have been naturalized in the past decade. But despite these numbers, statelessness remains a global issue, with only 64 states having adopted the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Thanks to "the joys of traveling on a French passport," Railya was able to spend a month with her family in Kazakhstan this summer. She's also started studying again and is due to spend some time in Poland as part of her international business degree program. "With my old travel pass, I would never have dared embark on this training," she told VICE News.
For the first time in her life, at the age of 42, Railya will also be able to vote. "It's impacted my behavior," she said. "Before, I stayed on the sidelines, in my corner. Now things are starting to change."
Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg
Photo via Benjamin Loyseau/UNHCR