“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Statelessness in Italy: What’s next?

11 February 2015 | Héléna Behr and Silvia Loschiavo. UNHCR Regional Representation for Southern Europe

“It is time to give voice to the strangers among strangers”.

With these words, journalist Gad Lerner introduced the first public meeting on Statelessness held on the 10th October 2014, organized by the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Senate in partnership with the UNHCR Regional Representation for Southern Europe and the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR).

The meeting gathered more than 100 persons from different backgrounds, including Government representatives, police, lawyers, judges, NGOs, stateless persons, students and university professors.

The Italian Council for Refugees and the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) are members of the European Network on Statelessness. During the conference, ENS’s campaign was presented and the video “Everyone has the right to a nationality” was shown to the participants.

The event was organized on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the adoption of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the participants included government actors as well as many Italian organizations working on statelessness issues since many years, such as the Sant’Egidio community.

The involvement of Institutional interlocutors in the discussion helped in raising technical and legal issues related to the stateless determination procedures in Italy. The event led to the engagement of political stakeholders in planning forthcoming reforms to be adopted in view of tackling the issue of statelessness.

The event was introduced and moderated by journalist and former stateless person Gad Lerner. He was born in Lebanon but suffered for many years the lack of a nationality, until he acquired Italian citizenship by marrying an Italian national. In his introductory speech, Lerner evoked episodes related to his former condition as a stateless person, the prejudices and misunderstandings he experienced in his everyday life, the difficulties he encountered when travelling; he also recalled one of his trips to Lebanon in the “desperate” search for his birth certificate.

All the speakers expressed their appreciation for the event, emphasizing the importance of raising awareness on the harsh condition of stateless persons, who were described as being deprived of their “right to have rights”. Reference was also made to Hannah Arendt’s philosophical analysis of citizenship – that stateless persons lose their social identity as well as the entitlement to the rights attached to a nationality, carrying the burden of not enjoying, inter alia, the freedom of movement.

Particular attention was paid to the fact that in Italy an estimated number of 15.000 young Roma are exposed to the risk of statelessness, being descendants of immigrants from the Balkan region who fled the conflicts in the Nineties and lost their citizenship after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Accession to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

Italy has ratified and in many respects implemented the 1954 Convention related to the Status of Stateless Persons, but it has not yet acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Since 2011, UNHCR established a dialogue with the Italian Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs aimed at overcoming a number of technical issues in view of promoting Italy’s accession to the Convention.

Italy’s nationality law (no.91/92) is indeed already compliant with the international standards under the 1961 treaty, such as the granting of nationality for otherwise stateless children. It was therefore welcome that in April 2014 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed Italy’s accession and drafted a Law proposal (DDL) authorizing the ratification. Having received the approval from all the relevant Ministries, the DDL has very recently been approved by the Council of Ministries and has now to go through the Parliamentary procedure before enactment. UNHCR has expressed the wish that the accession now be completed in the shortest possible time.

The procedures for the recognition of stateless status

The recognition of stateless status in Italy is twofold, as it can be certified by the appointed office of the Ministry of interior (so-called “administrative procedure”), or it can be object of a judicial proceeding before the Civil Court in Rome (so-called “judiciary procedure”). In the framework of the conference, there was a discussion about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two above-mentioned procedures, and recommendations were made for improvements.

With regard to the administrative procedure (ruled by art. 17 of Presidential Decree no. 572/93), its positive aspects include the fact that it does not involve financial commitments on the applicant’s side, since the relevant documents can be sent by registered post and the assistance of a lawyer is not required. However, the most relevant challenge with regard to the administrative procedure lies in the fact that access is limited to persons regularly residing in Italy, since to be eligible to apply applicants must provide the Administration with documents confirming  their right to residence in Italy.

In practice, this provision has been interpreted as limiting access to the procedure only to persons holding a residence permit and registered as residents in the Civil Registries of the Municipalities, thus excluding undocumented individuals.

The requirement of a regular residence on the Italian territory therefore prevents stateless applicants, especially Roma without a permit of stay and/or living in informal settlements, to benefit from the protection system envisaged under the 1954 Convention.

In this regard, the Office for Citizenship and Statelessness of the Ministry of interior acknowledged the need for an extensive interpretation of the law foreseeing the possibility of considering the “residence documents” required by law as any documentary proof demonstrating a de facto residence of the applicant on Italian soil.

Such interpretation would be in line with the recent provisions introduced in Italian citizenship law aiming at simplifying the acquisition of nationality through residence for foreigners born in Italy.

The judicial statelessness determination procedure, on the other hand, has historically proven to be the preferred means for the recognition of stateless status since it is open to undocumented migrants. As highlighted by ASGI during the conference, the recent case-law of the Italian Civil Courts on statelessness proceedings has shown some positive developments with regard to the standard of proof on the applicant’s side.

However, the procedure is very expensive, since the applicant has to be assisted by a lawyer and the proceeding has to take place before the Civil Court in Rome; moreover, the procedure can last up to 3/4 years.

The Working Group on the Legal Status of Roma

The working group on the legal status of Roma, established in the framework of the National Strategy for the inclusion of Roma, Sinti and Caminanti communities, has been working since 2013 on identifying possible solutions, to be introduced at a legislative and administrative level, to regularize the legal status of undocumented Roma mainly descending from persons coming from the former Yugoslavia. The need of resuming this work as soon as possible was strongly highlighted by the participants at the conference.

Political engagements and future activities

The conference witnessed the enhanced attention towards statelessness of political interlocutors, who engaged in discussion about the adoption of legislative and administrative measures aiming at overcoming the identified obstacles with regard to the stateless determination procedure.

In particular, Senator Luigi Manconi expressed his intention in promoting a Draft Law containing provisions aimed at improving the administrative stateless determination procedure as well as the recognition of the Italian citizenship to stateless children born in Italy. 

All the speakers expressed their intention not to consider the 10th October public meeting as a one-off event. There was recognition that the problem of statelessness needs to be tackled as it has a two-fold implication: on the one hand it affects the sphere of fundamental rights, on the other it involves the interest of a State in identifying and providing persons living in the national territory with a legal status. It was recalled how Hannah Arendt herself experienced the revocation of citizenship in a certain period of the 20th century. Yet the denial of nationality, and the consequent loss of the entitlement to basic human rights still persists in today’s world, thus calling for urgent solutions to be adopted at a national and international level.

UNHCR has published online its Recommendations on the relevant aspects of the Protection of Stateless Persons;

Moreover, UNHCR RRSE produced a short animation video on statelessness;

At the beginning of the conference, among other relevant documents, a hard copy of ENS’s petition was distributed to the participants;

The whole Conference has been recorded and can be viewed (in Italian) at this link.

This Sunday 15th Feb is the deadline for proposals to present at the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) Conference “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless” in Budapest. 2-3 June 2015. For details on how to apply visit the ENS website here

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