On World Children’s Day, politicians, civil society representatives, children and others gathered at the European Parliament for a high-level conference celebrating 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The CRC is the most widely ratified convention, signed by all European countries. It affirms the right of every child to a nationality and immediate birth registration (Article 7), a key mechanism to prevent statelessness. When a child lacks nationality – as a result of inheritance of statelessness, gender or other forms of discrimination, lack of safeguards or gaps in birth registration – it creates a situation of severe vulnerability, marginalisation and undermines their opportunity to develop to their full potential.
In many countries, nationality is an enabling right and can act as a gateway right to other rights, such as education, healthcare, social welfare and housing, with stateless children often being denied or limited in their access to these rights. Additionally, if children don’t have a nationality, they are more likely to be exposed to hostile policies, targeted at undocumented migrants.
Given the relationship between statelessness and children’s rights more broadly, childhood statelessness was identified as a priority issue for ENS and its members early on. In 2014, we launched our #StatelessKids campaign calling on all European countries to end childhood statelessness. The campaign was built on the research published in our No Child Should be Stateless report which revealed that even among those states that had acceded to relevant international conventions, more than half were still failing to properly implement their obligations to ensure that children acquire a nationality. Children’s rights, including access to birth registration and promoting nationality law reform to end childhood statelessness, continues to be a key part of our work and a priority theme within our new strategic plan.
It is important that we celebrate achievements in addressing childhood statelessness since states committed to protecting children’s rights in 1989. For example, twenty-four European countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Prevention of Statelessness over the past thirty years, a key commitment and mechanism to end statelessness. In 2016, Norway issued a new instruction to the immigration authorities to align their practice with Norway’s international obligations, removing lawful residence as a requirement for people born stateless in Norway to acquire Norwegian nationality. Additionally, in 2018 the Albanian parliament adopted amendments which remove barriers to birth registration, reducing the risk of childhood statelessness, in particular for children of Albanian parents born outside the country and for children of the minority Roma and Egyptian communities.
However, we must also take stock of what still needs to be done to end childhood statelessness in Europe. As demonstrated by data from our #StatelessnessIndex, half of European states still do not have necessary safeguards to protect children from statelessness in all cases. What is more, parents still face barriers to accessing birth registration, putting their children at risk of statelessness.
Barriers to birth registration
Most of us have had our birth registered. While crucial for recording the name and time of birth, birth registration can also help prevent statelessness as issuance of a birth certificate provides evidence of a child’s place of birth and who their parents are, both vital facts to establishing the child’s nationality.
Whilst available data suggests very high rates of birth registration within Europe, barriers to birth registration in some European countries persist, preventing universal birth registration from being realised across the region.
Strict and numerous evidence requirements for registering children’s births can cause difficulties for parents who lack civil or identity documentation, particularly impacting on Roma communities who face intergenerational barriers to accessing documentation, and refugees and migrants whose documents may have been left behind, lost, destroyed or never issued in the first place. Migrants with irregular status may be prevented from registering the birth of their children due to fear of contact with the authorities, particularly in countries such as North Macedonia and Germany where public officials are required by law to share information with immigration authorities.
Inadequate safeguards to prevent statelessness
The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the European Convention on Nationality both prescribe the conferral of nationality to children born on the territory if they would otherwise be stateless, and the CRC states that the child’s right to a nationality should be implemented in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless. Despite this, several countries still do not protect all children born on their territory from statelessness by, for example, making the child’s right to nationality dependent on the parents’ status or on legal residence.
In some cases, provisions are not automatic, requiring additional registration or proof of statelessness, and presenting practical barriers. For example, in Malta, there is a non-automatic provision in the Citizenship Act for children born stateless on the territory to acquire nationality after five years’ residence, but there is no information available about how proof of the child/person's statelessness is required or evidenced, the provision is little known, and it does not seem to ever have been used in practice. The Netherlands’ provision for otherwise stateless children to acquire a nationality is also not automatic, requiring a written statement to be submitted to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for approval, and the child must have at least three years’ continuous, legal residency in the country.
Children who have been abandoned and whose parentage is unknown (foundlings), children who have been adopted across an international border and children who are born from international surrogacy arrangements can also face risks of statelessness where legal safeguards do not exist or are inadequate in either legislation or implementation. Children of same-sex couples may face risks of statelessness due to discrimination and cross-border problems with civil documentation, as highlighted by the Network of LGBTIQ* Families Associations in our recent blog.
Risks of statelessness for children in migration
In 2017, more than 2,000 children registered as stateless applied for asylum in the EU, four times the number who applied in 2010. In 2015, over 6,000 children registered as ‘stateless’ applied for asylum. Despite the risks migrant and refugee children face relating to statelessness, statelessness is a hidden feature of the migration context in Europe.
Children of refugee and migrant parents born in Europe may be at risk for several reasons. Gender discriminatory nationality laws in parents’ country of origin, where mothers outside of the country of origin are unable to confer their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers, as is the case with 25 countries around the world, including Syria, Iran and Somalia, mean that a child is at risk of statelessness if they cannot acquire their father’s nationality or the nationality of their country of birth. The failure of authorities to accurately identify and register the nationality status of parents can mean that states are unaware or don’t accept that a child born on their territory may be stateless. Children may routinely be registered as having the same nationality as their parents without any examination of whether a parent can confer their nationality to the child.
Children arriving in Europe may already be stateless, coming from countries with known stateless populations, for example, Palestinian Refugees from Syria or Kuwaiti bidoon. Limited awareness of statelessness among migration and asylum officials; the lack of dedicated statelessness determination procedures in many European countries and tools to facilitate identification and registration, may lead to stateless children not being identified as such and referred to appropriate protection measures where statelessness is considered as a relevant fact.
Making sure no child in Europe is born stateless
Last week, MEPs put forward a motion for a resolution on Children’s Rights on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which the European Parliament adopted with a strong majority yesterday. The proposed resolution recognises that children continue to be born stateless and calls on Member States to find a solution to the issue within and outside the EU. It calls on the European Commission to promote universal access to birth registration and the child’s right to acquire a nationality, with a view to ending the risk of statelessness.
For countries across Europe to effectively address childhood statelessness and make sure that no child in Europe is born or grows up without a nationality, action is needed to:
(i) Remove practical barriers to birth registration, so that all children can realise their right to be registered immediately after birth regardless of the status of their parents, including strict and numerous evidentiary requirements which may particularly impact on Roma and other minority communities, refugees and migrants. Governments need to make efforts to ensure children do not face discrimination of any kind in accessing birth registration procedures, including Roma children and children of same-sex parents.
(ii) Introduce, improve and effectively implement safeguards in nationality laws to prevent statelessness so that all otherwise stateless children born on the territory of the state, regardless of their parents’ status, and otherwise stateless children born to a national of the state acquire a nationality.
(iii) Introduce, improve and effectively implement child-friendly procedures to identify and prevent statelessness in a migratory context including birth and civil registration, naturalisation, and dedicated statelessness determination procedures, which assist in securing durable solutions in line with the child’s best interests, including acquisition of nationality as soon as possible.
As part of the CRC 30th anniversary celebrations, states and European institutions voiced their commitment to fulfilling the rights of every child. The impact of statelessness on a child’s rights means that it is never in their best interest to be stateless. Realising the rights in the convention will not be possible while children continue to be born and grow up without a nationality. Today’s generation of children don’t have another thirty years to wait to enjoy their rights – the time is now for concrete reforms in law, policy and practice so that every child has their birth registered immediately and is granted a nationality.