Over the last few years, the problem of childhood statelessness has gained in importance in Italy. The need to adopt adequate legislation and policies as well as practical measures to reduce and to avoid the risk of stateless children has become a priority.
Despite it being clear that statelessness is a significant challenge, only limited data is available in order to identify the full scope of the phenomenon in Italy. It can be assumed that in the Italian context the largest group of children at risk of statelessness are those children of Roma communities coming from the former Yugoslavia. They have either inherited this status from their parents or they find themselves in a situation of uncertain or undetermined nationality, or are at risk of statelessness due to conflicts in nationality laws. These children are the second or third generation living in Italy: they have spent their whole life in this country, yet they have never had their statelessness status determined nor the opportunity to acquire Italian citizenship, due to a number of reasons. In addition, statelessness is an issue for minors whose parents come from Cuba, Chile, and Paraguay.
For several years, the Italian Refugee Council (CIR) has been proactively engaged in raising awareness on the causes and especially the serious consequences of statelessness in terms of the enjoyment of fundamental human rights for those children born on Italian territory.
In the context of the campaign by the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) “None of Europe’s children should be stateless”, CIR has had the opportunity to produce a report “Ending Childhood Statelessness: A Study on Italy”, exploring specifically the tight link between the acquisition of Italian nationality and the prevention of statelessness. In this regard, Italy is a bizarre country. By contrast to many other European States, Italy has not yet ratified some crucial international instruments concerning the reduction of statelessness such as the 1961 New York Convention, and the 1997 European Convention on Nationality. Nevertheless, Italian legislation largely complies with these obligations providing for a number of guarantees safeguarding the right to nationality to otherwise stateless children born in Italy.
Different routes are, in fact, set out in order to reduce and to prevent childhood statelessness. Children born on Italian soil to foreign parents who are at risk of statelessness may acquire Italian nationality at birth under the so-called jus soli principle whether both parents are unknown or stateless, or if they do not follow the citizenship of their parents because of their country of origin laws. Moreover, Italian legislation introduces an alternative mode of acquisition of nationality at the age of majority for otherwise stateless children who do not acquire Italian citizenship immediately at birth. When turning 18, the child has one year to submit a formal application to the competent municipality and must fulfil the requirement of legal residence without interruption.
A further positive element that came to light during the current research concerns birth registration. Italy, in fact, has in place an effective and inclusive system, guaranteeing that all children born on its territory are registered, regardless of their parents’ legal situation. Nevertheless, the study uncovered some gaps and failings which mainly concern administrative/bureaucratic hurdles as well as problems deriving from restrictive interpretation and implementation in practice of norms. All these factors contribute to hamper access to Italian nationality or a formally recognized stateless status, and make the risk of statelessness real for a number of children born in Italy. During the research CIR observed, inter alia, four key issues that require to be addressed as a priority:
A major challenge is represented by a lack of information concerning the possible acquisition of Italian nationality for otherwise stateless children born on Italian territory. In fact, even though legal safeguards should ensure them Italian nationality at birth or at the age of majority, there are problems in practice. These partly relate to the fact that the responsibility to initiate an application procedure rests on the child’s parents. Since there is a noteworthy lack or shortage of information and awareness, children are often prevented from enjoying their right to a nationality and all related human rights where parents fail to, or are unable to, take necessary steps..
A significant improvement facilitating the acquisition of Italian nationality when turning 18 has been introduced with the Decree Law 69/2013, which laid down an obligation for the authorities to inform all children registered at birth about their right and the procedure to obtain Italian citizenship. However, a substantial lack of information still persists with regard to the routes available to be granted Italian citizenship at birth. This problem is further sharpened in practice because several Population Registration Offices incorrectly record children with the nationality of their parents on the basis of the latter alleged nationality or their reported place of birth.
An evocative example in this regard is offered by the story of Rose. She is from Cuba and she is married to a Cuban national. In 2013 they had a daughter, who was registered immediately after birth at the competent local population office with Cuban nationality. Rosa and her husband never questioned their daughter’s claim to citizenship, because they were unaware that they could not transmit their nationality unless specific conditions were met. They, thus, never thought their daughter could be stateless. Many months later, Rosa wanted to visit Cuba, accordingly she contacted the embassy to obtain a passport for her daughter. At this moment she “discovered by chance” that the girl was not considered a Cuban citizen under its nationality law. The story of Rosa highlights a critical, common shortcoming that may be easily overcome whereby municipal civil offices, when registering the birth of children in situations of alleged statelessness, undetermined/uncertain nationality, or cases where parents may not transmit their citizenships due to their country of origin’s legislation, inform parents about the safeguards provided by Italian legislation to prevent statelessness and the procedure to be followed.
By law, children born on Italian territory to both stateless parents are entitled to benefit from an automatic acquisition of Italian nationality at birth. This relevant safeguard might constitute an effective tool to prevent situations of childhood statelessness. Italy, in fact, is one of the few countries in the world to have established an administrative and a judicial procedure for the statelessness status determination. Nevertheless, very rarely are children registered as Italian nationals at birth since statelessness procedures are in practice extremely difficult to navigate for several reasons and it is compulsory that both parents have a certified stateless status. A meaningful example in this sense is provided by data of the Rome municipality: since 2012 only two cases of children of stateless parents were granted Italian citizenship.
Italian legislation grants Italian nationality at birth to children who “do not follow the citizenship of their parents in accordance with the laws of their country of origin”. However, this provision covers only those minors whose parents come from a country where the laws do not permit them to confer nationality when the child is born abroad. This is for instance the case of Cuba, Paraguay and Chile that adhere to the jus soli criterion. Nevertheless, the study highlights that in practice there are situations where the transmission of nationality jus sanguinis in accordance with the laws of parents’ country of origin is particularly burdensome due to a number of administrative formalities, such as obstacles in the registration of children at the consulate or difficulties in gathering the required documentation (i.e. passport or an Italian permit of stay). Accordingly, these children are confronted by a serious risk of becoming stateless since in such cases they are also unable to acquire Italian citizenship automatically at birth under Italian Law.
A specific, critical situation concerns children of persons coming from States created after the dismantlement of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, such as Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina. In this regard, CIR directly encountered an individual case which illustrates the harsh, long-lasting consequences a child has to face for the rest of his/her life because of a restricted interpretation of the norm.
Djana was born in Rome in 1994. She holds a certificate of birth issued by the population register office of the Rome municipality. She is the fifth daughter of six children of a Roma family coming from the Former Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s. Her mother is a citizen of Bosnia Herzegovina; while her father is a stateless person, born under the Republic of Yugoslavia and allegedly originating from Croatia. He was never registered in his country of origin and has never had either any identification document or a passport. Djana was born with a mental disability, which was aggravated by physical abuse and violence carried out by her parents. When Djana was a teenager, a social assistant, with a view to track down her status, forwarded a request for information to the embassy of her parents’ countries of origin. However, the diplomatic authorities of Croatia replied issuing a formal declaration in which it was reported that Djana was not a citizen, while the embassy of Bosnia Herzegovina did not answer. Djana was also hampered in applying for Italian nationality at the age of majority because of the lack of expertise of institutional entities dealing with issues concerning migration and citizenship. In particular, once she was accompanied to the Police office to renew her document and on that occasion she was told that she could not obtain Italian citizenship because her grave mental disability prevented her to take oath. At present, she has a mere permit of stay for humanitarian protection, due to her mental health conditions, where it is reported that she is born in Italy, but she is a Bosnian citizen although the authorities of that State refuse to recognize her as a national by failing to respond to the inquiry.
A broader and more flexible interpretation of the law should be adopted, with a view to granting nationality automatically at birth also to those children born on Italian soil where, although their parents’ country of origin legislation officially provides for the transmission of nationality jus sanguinis, however they face an impossibility to fulfil in practice the administrative formalities required.
Despite noteworthy improvement introduced with the Decree Law 69/2013, concerns persist for those children born in Italy and effectively resided on Italian territory from birth until 18, who do not hold a regular permit of stay during the year prescribed by law for filing the application to acquire Italian citizenship. In order to lodge an application for the acquisition of Italian citizenship at the competent Municipality, in fact, registration at the local population register office is always required, which can be carried out only in case of possession of a regular permit of stay. Accordingly, the application of all those persons who cannot be enrolled in the population register office is declared inadmissible by the municipal Citizenship Office. In order to solve the problem of holding a regular permit of stay and, accordingly, to facilitate the acquisition of Italian citizenship when reaching the age of majority, a permit of stay based on the right to respect for private and family life as enshrined in article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights should be issued.
This piece is one of a series of ENS blogs themed around its campaign “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless”. The research study on Italy is available online here, and is one of eight country studies that ENS has commissioned across Europe. Visit the ENS website here if you wish to read other country studies or find out more about ENS’s recent conference in Budapest or the resulting action statement which is intended as a guide for collective efforts to end the scourge of childhood statelessness.