Birth Registration as Bordering Practice in Fortress Europe

By Allison J. Petrozziello, PhD Wilfrid Laurier University, International Migration Research Centre (Canada)
/ 7 mins read

European countries are reporting nearly universal birth registration coverage, with rates between 99 and 100%. These figures make it appear as if non-registration – and the corresponding risk of child statelessness – were not a problem on the continent. However, their reported statistics mask many unregistered births – particularly children born to migrant mothers.

A family is standing by the side of the road, about to enter a European country

Migration dynamics can complicate access to birth registration, particularly when documents establishing an individual’s legal identity or residence status are missing. In response to the increase in arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015-16, the EU launched a border enforcement strategy of interception and containment outside of continental Europe. Yet only a handful of studies recognise the challenges that migrant women, refugees, and other individuals with a precarious status, face when seeking a birth certificate for a newborn child. 

As a gender and migration scholar, my research starts with human mobility. Taking an intersectional feminist approach—which ENS uses to understand both the causes and consequences of statelessness— I propose the concept of “birth registration as bordering practice.” This blog offers examples of three bordering practices which may generate child statelessness.

Researching Blocked Access to Birth Registration 

More than 15 years ago, Laura van Waas raised the spectre of a stateless generation being born to migrants with irregular residence status across the globe, due to a plethora of legal, logistical, and attitudinal obstacles to their registration. Evidence from ENS’ Statelessness Index confirms which groups still face barriers to birth registration in Europe: children born to migrants without residence status, unrecognised refugees, same-sex couples, children born out of wedlock (especially to mixed nationality parents), and stateless minority communities, such as the Roma. 

Building on these insights, I spent the last five years constructing a Global Inventory of Exclusionary Birth Registration Practices based on UN treaty body recommendations and civil society reports submitted for those reviews. The main dataset used to construct the Global Inventory was the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion’s Database on Statelessness and Human Rights. 

European countries have received at least 50 UN recommendations related to birth registration and statelessness, mostly through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, followed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The recommendations emphasise facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for all children born on the territory without discrimination. 

Specific groups named in the recommendations include children born to illiterate or undocumented persons, refugees or asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, Roma or other ethnic minority groups, adolescent mothers, unmarried parents, and/or stateless persons. Most recommendations were issued to the Balkan countries of Eastern Europe. Western European countries were called upon to issue birth certificates to people living in overseas departments and territories (e.g., UK overseas territories or French Guyana) and the children of migrants and refugees. 

Bordering Practices

As governments tighten restrictions on migration, borders are cropping up in everyday life within and beyond the physical borders between states. The concept of “bordering practice” encapsulates this idea. Whether intentional or unintentional, whether carried out by a governmental institution or not, bordering practices can be enacted in everyday life as a means of controlling people’s mobility. 

This research demonstrates that birth registration is a key site where this control is exerted over children born to migrant parents—and others with precarious residence status. My forthcoming book, Birth Registration as Bordering Practice, lays out a typology of bordering practices which can block access to birth certificates and citizenship in a world on the move. Here I will highlight some examples from Europe.

1.    Migration Enforcement or Rights Protection? 

Borders are enacted in the birth registration process when public officials interpret their duty as migration enforcement rather than rights protection. The Statelessness Index shows that some healthcare and civil registrar offices are required by law to report undocumented migrants who seek their services.

Belgium requires by law that civil registrars report undocumented migrants to immigration authorities. In the UK, health officials are required to report certain immigration matters and also charge for health services, which may make undocumented migrant women less likely to give birth in hospital and make it harder to obtain a birth certificate. Other countries do not require migration reporting by law but may engage in migration enforcement at points of access to healthcare. This is reportedly happening in Bulgaria and North Macedonia. 

Germany requires that registry officials report those who are subject to deportation, breach geographic restrictions, or who have irregular residence status to immigration authorities. The CRC Committee expressed concern that this reporting requirement could be a practical difficulty for obtaining birth certificates for “newborn babies with irregular residence status”. In response, a migrant rights organisation began retrieving the birth certificates in their stead, to shield families from potential deportation.

2.    Gender Discriminatory Migration Governance

Structural gender discrimination within migration governance makes it difficult for migrant women to maintain a regular residence status and register their children. 

In Cyprus, officially, every woman who gives birth in the country is entitled to obtain a birth certificate for her baby, regardless of her migration status. In practice, some authorities refuse to issue one when the mother is unable to verify her identity or produce a hospital birth notification. When a border is enacted on the mother’s body, in practice it does not matter whether the father is a card-carrying citizen of the EU.

The CEDAW committee noted that migrant women who are members of Cypriot or EU-citizen families are entitled to a temporary residence permit, but that obtaining one requires a declaration from their spouse assuming responsibility for the living expenses. This is gender discriminatory and could heighten the risk of gender-based violence because it creates a relationship of dependency. 

How does this affect access to birth registration? Children born to mixed status parents in Cyprus (non-EU migrant mothers and Cypriot/EU citizen fathers) may not be registered because the mother’s status depends on her spouse’s willingness to sponsor her. If the relationship ends, the link to status is severed as is the child’s paternal link to recognition and citizenship rights in Europe. In other words, actual access to birth registration is made conditional on the documentation and residence status of the mother. In response, the CEDAW committee expressed concern that “migrant women, in particular those in an irregular situation, are reluctant to approach the relevant authorities, which may increase the risk of statelessness for their children.”  

3.    Babies Born in Transit

Challenges are even more pronounced for children born to mothers in transit or while contained on the periphery of Fortress Europe. This can be seen along migration routes in northern Africa as well as the Balkan countries.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has been a transit country for more than 70,000 migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, who have been using this route to Central and Western Europe since at least 2016. The country has received many recommendations to extend birth registration to migrants and asylum seekers, but as of 2019 had only facilitated this service to those with identity documents.

North Macedonia became a key country along the Balkan Route starting in 2014. Between 2015 and 2016, about 18% (84,693) of refugees transiting through the country were women, including pregnant women, nursing mothers and women travelling alone, many of whom faced sexual harassment, violence and exploitation by smugglers. It remains to be seen whether North Macedonia’s recent amendments to its civil registry law will remove barriers to birth registration for migrant women’s children. 

Where pregnant asylum seekers face difficulties accessing health care and/or cannot produce valid ID documents, children born en route to Western Europe remain unregistered and at risk of statelessness.

Babies without Borders

If universal birth registration is to be achieved, then border enforcement must play no part in it. 

One way forward is to enact firewalls blocking information sharing between public service providers and immigration enforcement. This aligns with guidance offered by the CRC and CMW committees in a Joint General Comment in 2017:
Legal and practical obstacles to birth registration should be removed, including by prohibiting data sharing between health providers or civil servants responsible for registration with immigration enforcement authorities; and not requiring parents to produce documentation regarding their migration status (para. 21). 

Some countries have taken heed. Switzerland, for example, explicitly prohibits public officials from reporting migrants in an irregular situation to migration authorities when registering births. 

Making gender-responsiveness a cross-cutting principle in migration governance, as called for in the Global Compact on Migration, is another promising practice. This includes ensuring access to services, such as sexual and reproductive healthcare and birth registration, regardless of migrant parents’ residence status. 

At the regional level, more research and awareness raising on birth registration for asylum-seeking families is needed. We can learn as much from the problematic practices discussed here, as we can from promising practices such as Spain’s landmark judgment granting nationality to a stateless child of a Cameroonian mother who was born en route to the country. All point to the need for regional harmonisation when it comes to birth registration practice. This can build on EU efforts to harmonise rules for recognition of parenthood.

Birth registration need not enact borders around the existence of the newest humans. Instead of bringing the border to the baby, we can practice creating inclusive systems which recognise the humanity before us. 

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