“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Every child belongs

10 February 2014 | Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme, Tilburg University

When raising awareness of the importance of birth registration, organisations like Plan and UNICEF have done a good job of devising compelling slogans, like “Count every child” and “All children deserve to celebrate their birthday”. The message is that every child has the right to recognition of their existence and proof of the facts of their birth as provided through birth registration. This can be critically important for the enjoyment of all sorts of child rights, from protection against early marriage to access to childhood immunisations. These kinds of slogans have the power to portray the importance of what is really a rather dry and technical administrative act to a wide audience in just a few words. Impressive.

Last week I was in Geneva to help teach a specialised short course on Statelessness and Child Rights – a collaborative project of the Statelessness Programme of Tilburg University, UNHCR and UNICEF, piloted for the first time. While I was there, I spent quite a bit of time pondering whether and how we could adopt a similar technique to that above to communicate core messages around statelessness. Just as the human rights language “every child has the right to birth registration” has been translated into the demand to “Count every child”, can we turn the “right of every child to acquire a nationality” into a more meaningful call to action?

Unfortunately, many of those who work on statelessness – including myself – have a legal background, rather than being communications or public information experts. Yet, as governments, UNHCR, other UN agencies and civil society groups start to engage on the issue more actively, knowledge of statelessness is quickly spreading beyond the lawyerly circles and other expertise is being brought in to operationalise policies to fight statelessness. So, no doubt we will start to see the emergence of increasingly sophisticated ‘marketing’ techniques and hopefully a simplification of the language around statelessness. Already, we see a move away from the message – sadly all too common in older publications – that “statelessness is a highly complex legal issue”. Because, quite frankly, birth registration is a highly complex legal, social, economic and sometimes political issue, but that’s not a particularly helpful way to introduce it to a new audience, which is why Plan and UNICEF have found a different approach.

The challenge then, is to work harder to explain statelessness, or at the very least the importance of fighting statelessness, in a way that any audience could understand and internalise it. This is a vital first step, because without some sense of what the problem is – and that it is a problem at all – no-one will be very motivated to invest the time to learn more about it or take action to address it. For this, we need to take a step back from the legal complexity and look at it from a more down to earth perspective.

One fact that I find particularly compelling and which was emphasised throughout the course on Statelessness and Child Rights is that, in any given year, the vast majority of new cases of statelessness are amongst children. Stateless parents are often powerless to prevent their plight from being transmitted to the next generation. If we are ever to crack this problem and realise the right to a nationality for all, we must stop this senseless spread of statelessness.

What’s more: children affected by statelessness did not choose to be outsiders. Nor do they somehow exist as free radicals without any attachments to a family, a community, a place or a home. They have the same connections as anyone else. They have a country. They belong. Yet their government is letting them down, right from the start, by failing to ensure that this belonging translates into a nationality – a legal bond which formalises their membership of the community and provides protection, rights, empowerment, a sense of acceptance and inclusion. As momentum grows to address statelessness and people from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, with different skills to offer, join the cause, I hope that there will be a greater effort to distil these types of simple messages and that someone with the know-how to do so will translate them into clever and compelling slogans to help spread the word.

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