Fighting for children’s right to nationality in Europe

Laura van Waas, Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
/ 6 mins read

“When is it in the best interests of the child to be stateless? Never!” With these 14 words, Renate Winter, Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, persuasively dispelled any lingering doubt there might be that to enjoy a nationality is anything less than a fundamental right of every child. It was an emotive, powerful and important contribution to the opening session of the regional conference on preventing childhood statelessness in Europe, convened by the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) in Budapest this week.

The conference, which drew 100 participants from over 30 countries, marked an important milestone in ENS’ broader campaign “None of Europe’s children should be stateless”. Launched six months ago, on International Children’s Day, the aim is to ensure that all children born in Europe, or born abroad to European parents, enjoy a nationality. It’s a simple goal, yet a surprisingly challenging one. As studies carried out in eight countries across the region by ENS members since the campaign launch have affirmed and discussions at the conference reinforced, the circumstances in which children are left without a nationality are diverse and in some cases the root causes are entwined with societal discrimination which is driving the exclusion. Depending on the country, childhood statelessness may be the effect of intergenerational statelessness left untreated, the unwitting result of a conflict of nationality laws, an outcome emerging from international commercial surrogacy, a by-product of the non-recognition of the bonds of maternity/paternity for same-sex couples, the consequence of child abandonment, or the upshot of systemic discrimination against Roma which is preventing them from accessing documentation of identity and nationality. Regardless the cause, the outcome is the same: a violation of the child’s right to enjoy the protection of a nationality.

The complexity of the issue of childhood statelessness, while fascinating from a research perspective, is deeply challenging from a solutions perspective. It’s not that the solutions themselves are uncertain or even complicated: all that is required to end childhood statelessness in Europe is the universal acceptance and full implementation of a simple safeguard granting nationality to every child born on a state’s territory (or to a state’s national abroad), if that child would otherwise be stateless. As Marc Dullaert, the Dutch Ombudsman for Children noted with astonishment, the difficulty is “that such a huge problem gets so little attention”. ENS, its members and others working on statelessness clearly hold an incredible amount of knowledge, he observed, but this “must not stay among experts”. This is, the conference concluded, one of the most important tasks moving forward. While significant research gaps remain, which civil society and academia must collaborate to address, the crucial next step for ENS and others will be to develop an effective strategy to push the issue into the public and political domain.

“A sense of urgency must drive our work”, remarked Louise Aubin, Deputy Director in the Division of International Protection at UNHCR, because every year that passes for a child without nationality can foster exclusion and isolation. This urgency must also be conveyed in order to create public pressure and generate political will to affect change. Preventing childhood statelessness is not only a core focus of ENS, but it is a central element of UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign and an issue staunchly supported and promoted by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, who contributed an inspiring video message to the conference. The stars appear to be aligning on this issue and, as MEP Jean Lambert asserted in her speech, now is the time to push the agenda forward – also at the level of the EU where various parliamentary and other initiatives are creating a space for dialogue and engagement. Indeed, at the 9th European Forum on the Rights of the Child which took place in Brussels while we were gathered in Budapest this week, childhood statelessness also received some fledgling attention.   

It is true that, for now, knowledge of the issue rests largely “among experts”, but what a community this is! Collectively, the depth of understanding that we are starting to achieve in respect of childhood statelessness is massively encouraging. All thirty speakers at the conference contributed new and valuable insights. But what was especially encouraging was that the event was not just a venue for talking through the issues, it was a place for an active, open and enthusiastic debate on how – very practically – to address them more effectively. Whether it was Adam Weiss expounding (with a contagious passion) the merits of strategic litigation, Tamás Molnar offering a government perspective on how to raise the profile of the problem, Rebecca O’Donnell explaining what child rights mechanisms can be brought to bear in aid of children’s right to nationality, Zoe Gardener urging us to “tear up our formal speech, let go a little and get involved in a conversation about the issue” or others, the conference was ultimately about finding ways to break through an apparent apathy which has surrounded this issue for too long.

For me, this week has been the best kind of exhausting, with not just the conference itself, but also a capacity building workshop with 50 participants on children’s right to nationality, the Annual General Conference for ENS members and further ENS planning meetings all held back-to-back. And in terms of the ENS campaign to end childhood statelessness, the work is only just starting, as we need to now gear up to implement some of the many ideas that have been generated to influence the reform of law, policy and practice. The immediate next step is to prepare the remainder of the ENS country studies on childhood statelessness for dissemination as working papers (the first 4 are already available here, with 4 more coming soon) and to synthesise the main findings of these and other research activities that have been undertaken into a single report which will help to inform the further campaign. Plans are already afoot for a creative public awareness drive using social media, (more) outreach to youth through teaching projects in schools, advocacy with relevant regional and international bodies, a youth conference to find out how Europe’s children see these issues and what solutions they propose, and much more...

In the meantime, a full Action Statement of the outcome of this regional conference will be available very soon and throughout June, ENS will be posting blogs relating to its campaign to end childhood statelessness. Help start the conversation about resolving this issue on Twitter or Facebook (#statelesskids) or by sharing this blog.  

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion is an expert partner for the ENS campaign “None of Europe’s children should be stateless”. Find out more about the Institute’s work at or sign up here to receive monthly bulletins with statelessness news, events and opportunities from around the world.

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