Catch 22: Steven’s story of statelessness in Britain

June 2, 2014

Three years ago Steven walked into a police station in the British city of 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 one fact: 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 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 dad.

“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 mum 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’s ZANU PF party. 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, UK employers started checking IDs. Steven lost everything and ended up in a homeless shelter.

Steven has written countless letters to Zimbabwean and Mozambican officials and even the hospital where he believes he was born. But to no avail. Zimbabwe and Mozambique have both said he needs to do his own record searches in country.

It’s a catch 22: To obtain ID he needs to be able to travel. But to travel he needs to have ID.

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