“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Understanding and addressing childhood statelessness in the UK: Introducing our new project

3 September 2020 | Jessie Seal, Senior Child Rights Coordinator (UK), European Network on Statelessness

With a few notable exceptions, statelessness has so far received limited attention among child rights and migration advocates in the UK, yet figures show that 5% (1,866) of all children granted British citizenship in 2018 were stateless, mostly registering as British citizens under a special statelessness provision in UK law. Despite the recent rise in the number of grants of British citizenship to children who applied under this provision, this area has had little research or policy focus in the UK to date.

Introducing our UK-focused project on childhood statelessness

Through our new 18-month project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, ENS aims to evidence and promote the reduction of childhood statelessness in the UK. We are exploring a new approach for ENS by increasing the Secretariat’s direct work in a specific national context where a policy window for impact has been identified.

We will work with our UK members, key partners, and people affected by statelessness to produce research that explores which groups of children and young people are at risk of statelessness and what explanations there may be for the rise in the numbers of stateless children registering as British citizens in recent years. The research component of the project will also look at existing support for children and families affected by statelessness and present examples of good practice.

Alongside the research, we will be mapping existing opportunities for influence and coalition-building, seeking to mainstream statelessness in relevant policy debates, and delivering training and engagement activities to raise awareness of the routes to redress for children and young people affected by statelessness in the UK.  We will partner with people affected by statelessness in our advocacy and awareness-raising work, supporting them to speak out about childhood statelessness to add pressure on the UK Government to enact reform.

What do we know about childhood statelessness in the UK?

Having been born in the UK does not automatically confer a right to British nationality and stateless children unable to acquire a nationality from their parents make up a proportion of the estimated 120,000 children settled in the UK who lack secure immigration status. The law in this area is extremely complex and within many different communities (and service-providers) there is often (understandably) confusion or a lack of knowledge about children’s nationality rights. Examples of affected families that we have come across in our work so far include parents from the British Rohingya community who were stateless when they arrived in the UK and have been unable to naturalise so have no nationality to pass on to their children born here; children of Kuwaiti and Syrian refugee women (and stateless or unknown fathers) who cannot confer their nationality due to gender discriminatory citizenship laws and LGBT+ families who have been unable to access the nationality of their parents.

Many affected children and families may not be aware that they are stateless or at risk of statelessness unless they apply for a passport or are asked to prove their immigration status. Statelessness can affect both children in families and children in care, so it is vital that there is awareness among communities, families, and service providers of the risks and solutions. Often, young people only become aware of the issue as they approach adulthood and begin to apply for higher education, jobs, or a driving licence. This limits the amount of time children and their families or carers have to access the limited support available and to remedy their situation before they turn 21 (the cut-off point for registering as a British citizen under the statelessness provision). Young boxer, Kelvin Bilal Fawaz, recently told his powerful story of life as a young person in the UK without citizenship, subject to detention and destitution, before he was granted temporary leave to remain this year. He spoke of the many hurdles still to be overcome before he can resolve his citizenship status.

Even when parents are well-informed and aware of their children’s rights, the situation can be needlessly difficult to resolve. Sayed Alwadaei, Director at ENS member organisation, Bahrain Institute for Democracy and Rights (BIRD), and stateless himself, has written for the Guardian about the statelessness of his daughter born in the UK. It is taking years of concerted advocacy for Sayed to resolve his family’s immigration status and secure his daughter’s nationality rights.

With no other country that recognises them as a national, the future of stateless children is tied to the UK. Yet, their statelessness pushes them to the margins of society and exposes them to hostile environment policies. The right to a nationality is an enabling right and without access to citizenship as they enter adulthood, young people face barriers to accessing other rights, including health, education, work, and social security.

As our Statelessness Index explains in detail, the UK is obliged under international law to prevent and reduce statelessness and to ensure that every child born here acquires a nationality as soon as possible after birth. British nationality law does prevent statelessness in most cases, but there are some critical gaps and practical barriers. Children born stateless in the UK have a right to register as British citizens after five years’ residence under a special provision in the British Nationality Act but the process is complex and prohibitively expensive. For many children and their families, access to specialist support is difficult as there is a lack of awareness about the issue even among lawyers and service providers, limited experts around the country, and limited legal aid for nationality related procedures.

So, what’s next?

During the first stage of the project, we are reaching out to lawyers, child and migrants’ rights organisations, communities affected by statelessness, local authorities, service providers, and other relevant stakeholders across the UK to find out who is working with children and families affected by statelessness, and build and strengthen partnerships on this issue. We would love to hear from you if you are interested in finding out more about the project, are working on this issue, and/or if you think you or the children and young people you know or work with might be stateless. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, Jessie Seal, ENS’s Senior Child Rights Coordinator (UK) (jessie.seal@statelessness.eu).

Photo: Chris Fleming (flickr - Creative Commons) 

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