Recently, I had the privilege to be invited as a speaker to a hearing on the subject of Access to Nationality for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). I was asked to address the issue of stateless Roma in Serbia and the Western Balkan Region and actions that the state should take in order to avoid statelessness. Below I present the impressions that I took away from this interesting hearing.
The hearing was organised by Mr Boriss Cilevics (Latvia, Socialist group), a member of the CoE Parliamentary Assembly and vice-chairperson of its Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. In October 2010 Mr Cilevics had presented a motion for a resolution on “access to nationality“(Doc. 12414) signed by 21 members of the Parliament (the majority belonging of the Socialist Group). The motion was forwarded to the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on 24 January 2011 for report. The Committee appointed Mr Cilevics as rapporteur at its meeting in Strasbourg on 26 January 2011.
The motion draws attention to the issues of access to nationality for immigrants and their descendants as a crucial condition for their integration and full enjoyment of political rights and political representation. Most European countries do not facilitate naturalisation for first-generation migrants, while European-born children often face unfavourable additional requirements for becoming citizens of their country of birth. As stricter criteria apply to them, many migrants wanting naturalisation can have their application refused or nationality withdrawn on various grounds, without any time limits. Moreover, only a handful of countries allow migrants to hold complete dual nationality. The tendency in recent years to make it more difficult to acquire citizenship in several Council of Europe member states also raises concerns.
The hearing started with a presentation by Prof. Dr. Gerard-René de Groot, Professor of Comparative Law and International Private Law from the Maastricht University. He addressed the legal regime on multiple
nationality, the changing attitude of Council of Europe Member States towards multiple nationality and the issue of access to nationality by immigrants and their children to their country of immigration. He raised an interesting contradiction: why do many states allow, or even encourage multiple nationality when children are born to parents of different nationalities, but discourage or even prohibit voluntary acquisition of multiple nationality by adults?
Following this presentation, Inge Sturkenboom, Protection Officer (Statelessness) from the UNHCR Bureau for Europe addressed the question of safeguards against statelessness at birth as set out in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. She emphasized UNHCR’s concern that children continue to be born stateless in Europe because of insufficient safeguards to prevent statelessness in the nationality legislation of some States. In particular, it is crucial that states have provisions to address children born in the territory who would otherwise be stateless.
The members of the Committee who took part in the open discussion mainly raised their concerns about the growing problem of multiple nationality, showing how much multiple nationality is disliked by some states and appears to some to be an even greater problem than statelessness. Some raised the concern that today there are many more individuals holding dual citizenship than stateless persons, and posited that nationality may lose all significance when in several years people may be able to acquire 10-20 different nationalities.
Others taking part in the discussion were concerned about the problem of dual nationality of a number of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) who reside in BH but are also Croatian nationals. After Croatia joins the EU, they will be EU citizens and at the same time citizens of BH. This would create the problem that although they are living in the same state, such dual nationals will be in an entirely different position, possessing different rights and opportunities than their fellow citizens. This raised many interesting concerns. For instance, where will a person with multiple nationality enjoy or exercise their political and economic rights? Could multiple nationality become an obstacle to full integration? How will states resolve clashes between their interests in areas such as compulsory military service and diplomatic protection?
However, despite these concerns there was a positive voice supporting multiple nationality in the discussion, stating that the right to nationality is a fundamental human right and that individuals can have ties with several countries, several social identities, and that in the era of globalisation it is important to pursue the broader objective – integration.
During the discussion the issues of prevention and reduction of statelessness were somehow pushed to the side as of multiple nationality took centre stage as the primary concern of the discussion participants. However, it is clear to see how these issues are related: so long as states harbour suspicions that granting multiple nationality will lead to complex problems, they may also hesitate to openly offer citizenship to stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness. Opening the door to multiple nationality may indeed bolster respect for the right of access to nationality in general. Regardless, prevention of statelessness needs to be the priority.
By the end of the hearing it was evident that Mr. Cilevics will have a challenging task ahead with his report. There is still a long way to go. Statelessness is a sensitive and often politicised subject, very closely related to migration, state succession and the rights of migrants. Most European countries have no framework to effectively deal with statelessness, and this has left many stateless persons vulnerable to discrimination and human rights abuse. It is encouraging to see the Council of Europe attempting to deal with this issue, but at the same time it is hoped that any resulting resolutions will be grounded first and foremost in protecting the human rights of Europe’s most vulnerable people.