“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Access to Citizenship and its Impact on Integration: Growing attention on the role of the European Union in tackling statelessness?

26 February 2013 | Chris Nash, International Protection Policy Coordinator at Asylum Aid

Last Friday saw an event in Brussels organised by the Migration Policy Group (MPG) to present EUDO CITIZENSHIP’s latest research as part of an EU-level debate on future European cooperation on the acquisition and loss of nationality. The event, part of the EU-funded project  Access to Citizenship and its Impact on Integration (ACIT), covered questions such as how does becoming a citizen help an immigrant become more integrated in society or what opportunities and obstacles do immigrants face to become citizens across the EU? And crucially what can European institutions and civil society do to promote naturalisation in European countries?

The event kicked off with a series of presentations summarising EUDO’s key research results and its new citizenship indicators which reveal what are the legal and administrative obstacles to citizenship acquisition, the impact of these rules, and the other factors that determine naturalisation rates. This data constitutes essential reading on how to evaluate policy outcomes, set targets and standards, and assess the future impact of policy changes. The afternoon session saw more of a workshop discussion to debate the effects of citizenship policies and prospects for reform, and which gathered support and ideas for MPG and other partners to take this forward in future - so watch that space! Sandwiched between these sessions were presentations by the European Commission, Hannes Swoboda MEP, Professor Rene de Groot , UNHCR and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks.

 For my part, the organisers had invited me, on behalf of the European Network on Statelessness, to speak about the role of the EU in addressing statelessness as well as more generally about the importance of naturalisation as a tool as a tool to reduce statelessness.

 Reflecting on this brought home how relatively limited debate there has been to date about the role of the EU with regard to statelessness. This is perhaps unsurprising given the sovereign right of each Member State to regulate access to nationality (of course within the limits set by international law). Unlike refugee protection, statelessness per se is not a ground for obtaining an international protection status in EU law (ie. the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union only establishes a competence to operate common policies in the field of asylum and migration). However, it is worth noting that the 2007 Lisbon Treaty does confirm that with regard to EU law on freedom, security and justice “stateless persons shall be treated as third country nationals” (a term commonly used in EU legislation).

But there are some positive signs of a sea change, for example with regard to increased recognition of the link between nationality and the enjoyment of EU citizenship (see the ruling of the Court of Justice in Rottmann). As described in earlier blog posts, there is also evidence of growing political awareness about statelessness among European states and an ensuing commitment to take action. For example, half of all EU Member States made statelessness-related pledges at the UNHCR Ministerial Meeting in December 2011. Subsequently in September 2012 at the UN High Level Rule of Law Conference the EU pledged that all Member States not yet parties would ratify the 1954 Convention (that’s Malta, Cyprus, Estonia and Poland) and consider acceding to the 1961 Convention.

While it would seem premature to consider common legislation in this area, there is nonetheless a clear need for the European Commission to play more of a leadership role in helping to raise awareness about statelessness and to make necessary links with debates on integration and active citizenship, particularly in 2013 the Year of the European Citizen.  There is also a need for greater attention to assessing the impact of current EU legislation and policy on stateless persons (e.g. with regard to identifying stateless migrants when applying the Returns Directive). The Commission could start by actively following up on the pledges made during 2011 and 2012. It could also play a greater role in encouraging accessions to the Council of Europe instruments on statelessness (not the subject of any pledges but which nonetheless form an important part of the legal framework for EU states). Finally, the EU needs to develop appropriate funding streams for work to tackle statelessness, for example by ensuring the inclusion of stateless persons within the scope of the new Asylum and Migration Fund.

Another aspect that Friday’s discussion brought home is that the greatest need of the stateless is the decisive resolution of their plight through the bestowal of citizenship. Yet as evidenced by the EUDO citizenship indicators, currently State naturalisation policies vary considerably, and few countries seem to have provisions which specifically facilitate or make easier naturalisation for stateless persons. Of course nowhere in the 1954 Convention is it established that stateless persons have a right to acquire the nationality of the state protecting them. The wording of Article 32 is clear that individuals do not have a right to be considered for naturalisation but rather at most an opportunity to enjoy facilitated naturalisation. That being said, it’s worth recalling that the European Convention on Nationality goes one step further and does set out a clear obligation for contracting states to facilitate the naturalisation of stateless persons. Moreover, it goes beyond the 1954 Convention in explicitly specifying that more favourable conditions should include a reduction in the length of required residence and the avoidance of unduly restrictive fees or language requirements. This is another reason why more European states should be encouraged to accede to this Convention (currently there are only 12 signatories).

But the real obstacle facing stateless persons, and in some respects the elephant in the room last Friday, is the current catch 22 situation that stateless persons first need to be identified and regularised before they can naturalise, or for that matter access a range of other rights directly owed to them under the 1954 Statelessness Convention. Given that almost all states require lawful residence as a pre-condition of naturalisation, the absence of a statelessness determination procedure which can bestow lawful leave to remain (currently regrettably the situation in most EU countries notwithstanding their ratification of the 1954 Convention) effectively excludes stateless persons from any prospect of naturalisation. And it is this, alongside citizenship laws which still generate statelessness at birth, which remains the most pressing statelessness challenge in Europe.

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