Ahead of next week’s UN global meeting in Geneva: Why Europe must redouble its efforts to tackle statelessness

Chris Nash, Director of the European Network on Statelessness
/ 7 mins read

On Monday, governments and regional institutions from across the globe will gather in Geneva for UNHCR’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness (HLS) which will take place during the 70th annual plenary session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme (EXCOM). This important event will mark the midway point of UNHCR’s decade-long #IBelong campaign, which seeks to eradicate statelessness by 2024. The purpose is to celebrate the achievements of the campaign so far, as well as to encourage states and other actors to make new pledges in support of its goals. We will be part of a global coalition of civil society organisations and stateless activists going to Geneva to use this advocacy opportunity (including through an official side event moderated by ENS) to promote our work and to mobilise action towards ensuring nationality rights for all.

Eradicating statelessness is achievable but …

There has been some progress in Europe over the last five years. Several states (most recently Spain) have acceded to the UN Statelessness Conventions, for example, and the #IBelong campaign has undoubtedly provided much-needed visibility to the issues. But, far greater attention by governments is urgently required if this is to be translated into actual improvement in the lives of men, women and children still living without a nationality across the region. Against the backdrop of the campaign, we and our members have sought to act as an expert voice and ‘critical friend’ to governments, both supporting progress where it has been made, and highlighting remaining gaps.

If European governments are to fulfil the aims of the #IBelong campaign they will need to redouble their commitments, adopt new policies, and deploy resources to properly administer the dedicated protection systems that are needed to tackle statelessness. To help achieve this, regional institutions such as the EU and Council of Europe must also step up their efforts and adopt dedicated law and policy to guide their member states in the actions that are needed. Ending statelessness is achievable, but for that to happen five issues need to be addressed as soon as possible.

1.) Ending childhood statelessness

Europe continues to be a producer of statelessness. Back in 2015, as part of our #StatelessKids campaign we published research showing that more than half of European states were failing to meet their international obligations to grant nationality to all children born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless. Since then, only Norway and Albania have significantly improved their practice, meaning that thousands of children continue to be born and grow up stateless in Europe.

2.) Improving the identification and protection of stateless people

Although Europe is doing better than many other regions (with the exception of the Americas) when it comes to upholding obligations under the 1954 Statelessness Convention, the disturbing reality remains that only ten European states have in place dedicated statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) to enable them to properly identify who on their territory is living without a nationality and is owed protection under the Convention. Research for our 2017 #LockedInLimbo campaign consistently demonstrated that the failure to identify statelessness puts people at risk of arbitrary detention whilst unsuccessful attempts are made to remove them to countries to which they do not belong. Breaking this cycle requires urgent law and policy reform.

3.) Addressing statelessness in Europe’s refugee response

Underlying the current flawed approach by many European states is a failure to properly recognise the link between statelessness and forced migration. That is why earlier this year we launched our #StatelessJourneys project, which demonstrates the impact of statelessness and nationality problems on refugee journeys, and highlights that Europe’s refugee response actors are ill-equipped to protect the rights of stateless refugees. This is particularly worrying given that Eurostat data for 2015-18 shows that nearly 100,000 people claiming asylum in the EU were registered as stateless or of ‘unknown nationality’. The aim of our #StatelessJourneys project is not only to highlight the gaps through research, but to produce practical tools for advocacy, capacity-building, awareness-raising and community engagement, to protect the rights of stateless refugees and prevent new cases of statelessness arising in the migration context in Europe.

4.) Statelessness is (still) a minority issue and a gendered issue

Unfortunately, the discriminatory attitudes and policies that create and perpetuate statelessness in so many other parts of the world are still very much present in Europe. Research conducted under our #RomaBelong project has repeatedly shown that statelessness is a cause and a consequence of both antigypsyism and women’s inequality. Too often the discrimination faced by Romani people in access to citizenship rights is dismissed as ‘merely’ a technical failure in civil registration procedures. Or perhaps worse, Romani people themselves are blamed by states and wider society for the exclusion that is a cause and a consequence of this discrimination. These issues are particularly pronounced in the Western Balkans, including in states currently seeking to join the EU. The enlargement process presents a crucial window of opportunity for reform that would seem both achievable and politically expedient. It is incumbent on the EU, however, to take a real leadership role if this is to happen.

5.) Developing a dedicated regional strategy to galvanise action

As well as looking outwards, the EU needs to turn its attention inwards and deliver on its own commitments to addressing statelessness. Despite the landmark adoption of European Council Conclusions on Statelessness back in December 2015, and some useful rallying cries  by the European Parliament (including a Joint Hearing on Statelessness in 2017), relatively little concrete progress has been made. There are some encouraging signs that the OSCE is stepping up its work on statelessness, and we know that the Council of Europe is taking forward a promising initiative to improve statelessness identification and protection practices in response to the Secretary General’s Action Plan on Refugee and Migrant Children. However, Europe currently lacks a dedicated regional strategy equivalent to the Brazil or Abidjan Declarations in the Americas and West Africa. This lack of an integrated and holistic regional approach is a missed opportunity to galvanise action at country level.

The High-Level Segment and what to expect

So, what can we expect from the gathering in Geneva next week? Positively, some European states have indicated their intentions to accede to the Statelessness Conventions, and there may also be other pledges to improve the lives of stateless people in Europe. But what we really need to see is implementation. Accession to Conventions is all very well, but this must be translated into law, policy and practice that improves protection for individuals affected and prevents new cases of statelessness arising. This will require reflection, resources, interaction with civil society and stateless people, and ultimately, concrete action on the part of national and regional authorities.

The High-Level Segment also offers an opportunity for a growing global coalition of NGOs and stateless activists to highlight their work and achievements, such as the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights advocacy to address gender discrimination in nationality laws, or the work of our sister network Red ANA in the Americas to persuade the Colombian Government to protect the right to nationality of Venezuelan refugee children. The Central Asian Network on Statelessness (CANS), coordinated by Azizbek Ashurov, has made remarkable progress in eradicating statelessness, most notably in Kyrgyzstan where Azizbek’s efforts have deservedly resulted in him being today honoured with the 2019 Nansen award. We have collaborated closely with Azizbek and were also pleased to have had the opportunity to share some of our Network’s learning and experience when CANS was set up back in 2015.

Looking ahead

The next phase of UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign will continue to provide a useful vehicle to raise awareness and galvanise action. We recently launched our own five-year strategy, which is intended to complement efforts by UNHCR and other actors. But, as a network, we also recognise the need to look beyond the #IBelong campaign. Ending statelessness in Europe will take longer than five years, and will require ever-closer monitoring of law, policy and practice to hold governments to account in meeting their international obligations. Our new online Statelessness Index will help us to do this more effectively, but we also need to be building new coalitions and providing spaces for dialogue and exchange with the different people affected by the issues we work on. Over the coming months and years, we will be investing more in our work with stateless people, and stand ready to use all tools at our disposal, together with our growing network of members and supporters, to work tirelessly towards our vision of a Europe where everyone has the right to a nationality.

For more information see the ENS High Level Segment briefing which we will be sharing with European governments and other actors attending the High-Level Segment on Statelessness next week.

Related topics