“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Under the Radar and Under Protected: The Urgent Need to Address Stateless Children’s Rights

8 November 2012 | Inge Sturkenboom, UNHCR Regional Protection Officer (Statelessness)

UNHCR estimates there are up to six million stateless children around the world, whose lives are insecure and futures are uncertain. Many among them are denied access to education and healthcare. Stateless children are vulnerable to labour or sexual exploitation, human trafficking and abuse. Some stateless children are locked up alongside adults and deported.

UNHCR has joined hands with Plan International to encourage Governments to address statelessness among children and to uphold their human rights. The two organizations have published a new brochure, Under the radar and under protected: the urgent need to address stateless children’s rights which describes the causes and consequences of statelessness among children, stateless children’s rights and the importance of birth registration. It can be used as an advocacy tool as well as an information tool for a broader audience.

Plan International and UNHCR urge States to include stateless children in the development and implementation of international and national policies, programme work and research on children’s health, education, protection, labour, trafficking, poverty reduction and development. States are also encouraged to develop campaigns for free, accessible and non-discriminatory birth registration with the help of UN agencies, donors, NGOs and civil society.

The launch of the brochure coincided with a high level panel event on birth registration in New York on 7 November 2012. Participants include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, the Executive Director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, and the CEO of Plan International, Nigel Chapman. The panel highlights the crucial importance of universal birth registration to reduce and prevent statelessness.

UNICEF estimates that each year 51 million newborn babies remain unregistered. This happens for a variety of reasons: high cost and complex requirements for registration or late birth registration, practices that exclude girls or non-nationals from registration, lack of awareness of the importance of registration, etc.  In most cases, the nationality of these children is never in question. UNHCR’s mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness comes into play where lack of birth registration combines with other factors such as migration, creating a heightened risk of statelessness.

Without birth records and formal documentation linking them to a particular country, children are legally “invisible” and often denied their basic rights, such as the right to a nationality. If the lack of birth registration and nationality is not addressed, these stateless children may grow up to become stateless adults, incapable of transferring a nationality to their children, thereby perpetuating statelessness from across generations.

In Europe, UNHCR has supported and encouraged governments establish universal birth registration systems to prevent statelessness among children and to ensure access to services and basic human rights, especially in South-East Europe where this has been identified as key to resolving doubts regarding nationality.

In October 2011, during a conference organized by UNHCR, the European Commission and the OSCE in Zagreb, participants from international organizations and from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo recognized the importance of cooperation to address civil documentation and registration gaps in South Eastern Europe, among others in the field of birth registration.  

In 2009/2010, a study by the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina estimated that 7% of the Roma population of approximately 30,000 persons was not registered at birth and UNHCR estimated 4,500 people were at risk of statelessness in the country. UNHCR, the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees and UNICEF formed mobile teams to register over 2,000 of these children in birth registries. While progress has been made, also in the form of recently adopted improved legislation on birth registration, gaps remain and continue to raise concerns of statelessness among children.

The European Commission stated in its recent Progress Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina that ‘[a] large number of Roma children are not registered at birth and therefore cannot attend school and have no health insurance. (…) A number of Roma remain at risk of statelessness.’ Similarly, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recently expressed concern about difficulties in birth registration for children born outside of hospitals, children living in remote areas, refugees and children belonging to minority groups.

In Montenegro, UNHCR estimates some 2,900 persons are at risk of statelessness due to lack of birth certification. UNHCR works with the government to establish a system to facilitate late birth registration, which would especially benefit those amongst the Roma population who were not registered at birth. 

In Serbia, the lack of birth registration was identified as a problem among the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian populations. UNHCR and its partner in Serbia, the NGO Praxis, cooperated for the subsequent registration of 2,000 persons into birth registries while 2,715 persons, mostly IDPs from Kosovo whose documents were lost or registry books destroyed, were re-registered.

A law adopted by the Serbian parliament on 31 August 2012 establishes a special court procedure facilitating late registration on the basis of statements and testimonies for people who were never registered at birth. While it remains to be seen whether the new procedure will be efficiently implemented, it is potentially an important step towards solving the situation of the ‘legally invisible’ in Serbia.

As part of its global re-enforced efforts to address statelessness among children, UNHCR in Europe, and especially in South-East Europe, will continue its cooperation with governments and non-governmental organizations at the national and regional levels to ensure universal birth registration and access to civil status registration documents for children and adults.


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