Europe must not allow its children to grow up without a nationality

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager of the Statelessness Programme, Tilburg University
/ 4 mins read

How do you explain statelessness to a child?

Yes, you were born here. And yes, mummy comes from here. And yes, daddy comes from here. And yes, you speak our language. And yes, you celebrate the same festivals as us. And yes, you look just like all the other children who live and play in your neighbourhood.

But no, you are not really one of us. You are not officially a member of our community. You are an outsider. You are an alien. And no, there is also no other place for you to belong. You are stateless.

That’s a tricky thing to explain, but harder still to justify. It’s a sad fact then, that of the 10 million plus stateless people worldwide, it is estimated that half are children: born and now fast growing up without a nationality. How is this even possible when as early as 1930, governments were drawing up international agreements in order to ensure that no child is left stateless? How is this possible when many decades ago, childhood statelessness was already identified as an entirely avoidable problem and the necessary preventative measures were already known (e.g. the norms found in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness)? And perhaps most intriguingly, why has ‘even’ Europe not succeeded in staving off this problem, despite additional regional agreements that guarantee children’s right to a nationality (e.g. the norms found in the 1997 European Convention on Nationality)?  

The truth, like it or not, is that Europe is still a ‘producer’ of statelessness. Day to day, this may no longer be on the same alarming scale as when statelessness was suddenly created by the redrawing of borders and disintegration of states in the Europe of the 1990s. Nor may it have the same shocking and condemnable undercurrent as when statelessness resulted from policies of mass denationalization in the Europe of the 1930s. Yet I cannot help but be both alarmed and shocked by the fact that it is possible to be born stateless in Europe today. Indeed, this is a significant concern both in countries which already have large stateless populations – such as Latvia and Estonia – as well as where statelessness is a relatively marginal issue. A recent ENS blog highlighted just one of the many thousands of tragic stories of people born without, and growing without, a nationality. And to offer my own country by way of example: of the approx. 2000 people who are listed in the Dutch civil registry as ‘stateless’, it is astounding to discover that 1400 (or 70%) of these individuals were born in the Netherlands.

In order to better understand how, why and where things are going wrong, the European Network on Statelessness took the initiative to compile a report on Preventing Childhood Statelessness in Europe. It draws on existing comparative nationality law research conducted by the European Union Democracy Observatory on Citizenship, existing literature on problems of implementation of nationality laws and information provided by ENS members. This report looks at how Europe is performing with respect to international and regional standards in the fields of human rights, child rights and statelessness all protect the child’s right to acquire a nationality. In light of the overall goal of preventing childhood statelessness it highlights the main issues, gaps and good practices. It is launched this week, on the eve of an important series of events that will take place in Strasbourg from 7-9 April and which will focus on the challenge of addressing statelessness in Europe. The hope is that this will inspire further recognition and understanding of, and ultimately more effective law and policy to combat, the problem of childhood statelessness in Europe.

The report concludes with a series of important recommendations:

1. Ensure that all otherwise stateless children born on the territory of a European state acquire a nationality promptly.

2. Address the inadequacy of safeguards to prevent statelessness for children born on the territory as a matter of priority in those countries with large, existing stateless populations.

3. Ensure that restrictions on the conferral of nationality jus sanguinis to children born abroad do not lead to statelessness.

4. Abolish any difference in treatment in nationality laws with regards to children born out of wedlock.

5. Simplify procedures for birth registration and confirmation of nationality in countries with a problem of intergenerational lack of documentation.

6. Review nationality laws to identify and revise any provisions that could lead to loss of nationality of children, leaving them stateless.

Click here to access the ENS report ‘Preventing Childhood Statelessness in Europe: Issues, Gaps and Good Practices’.

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