Why are children still being born in stateless in Europe in 2015? Why, when this stands at odds with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and a host of other international instruments? And why again, when for those children affected, statelessness results in denied rights, denied opportunities, unfulfilled potential and a sense of never quite belonging - bringing hardship to children and their parents alike?
This is the question that ENS set itself earlier this year when, as part of our #StatelessKids campaign, we embarked on research in eight European countries, presented and road tested at a major regional conference convened in June 2015, complemented with further expert analysis and now answered in its new report released today “No child should be stateless”.
The key take-away message from the report is an obvious but nonetheless important one – namely that childhood statelessness is an entirely solvable issue which could be eradicated through the proper implementation of simple, legislative safeguards. These provisions – a sort of legal safety net – are prescribed by relevant international norms that address the situation of children who would otherwise be left stateless. But ENS’s research reveals that currently far too many children are falling through the cracks – denied a nationality due to either gaps in the formulation of nationality laws, or a failure in their implementation.
While almost all countries in the region have some law provisions designed to protect against childhood statelessness, remarkably few provide all children born in their territory who would otherwise be stateless the opportunity to acquire nationality immediately upon or as soon as possible after birth – a provision that is clearly in the best interests of the child. Indeed, ENS’s report reveals that more than half those states who have signed up to provide this safeguard ie. by having acceded to either or both the 1961 Statelessness Convention and the European Convention on Nationality, are failing to fulfil this obligation. Which is pretty shocking, and equally does not send an appropriate message to other regions of the world where the prevalence of childhood statelessness is relatively much greater.
The report makes clear that the establishment of inclusive legislative safeguards must go hand-in-hand with measures to remove practical and administrative hurdles in accessing or confirming nationality. This means adopting special measures to actively facilitate access to nationality where statelessness arises. Including the enhanced identification of relevant cases where a child is labelled as being of “unknown nationality” for a prolonged period of time (which can never be in the ‘best interests’ of a child). In other contexts, improving the provision of information on applicable nationality procedures to those affected constitutes an important complement to the identifying of stateless children, where the remedy is not automatic under the law.
In addition to these relatively straightforwardly solvable situations, ENS’s research also unveiled other emerging, and sometimes more challenging, contexts where children are vulnerable to statelessness but which European states have not adequately addressed or, sometimes, even identified. Some of these are very topical and relevant to the current ‘refugee crisis’ happening across Europe. Syria, the country of nationality of the majority of refugee arrivals, does not allow Syrian mothers to transfer nationality to their children. A child born to a Syrian mother and an unknown or deceased father therefore does not acquire Syrian nationality, even though the mother does hold a nationality herself. Equally, many Syrian or other refugee families face obstacles in registering the births of their children in transit or host countries. This issue has been well documented in Turkey, including on this blog, where upwards of 60,000 refugee children are estimated to have been born since the start of the crisis. But there is also a need for governments in other countries to become far more aware about the risk of statelessness faced by refugee children, and to take measure in order to protect a whole future generation of Syrian exiles from statelessness - children who have already suffered hugely.
Other contexts presenting a risk of statelessness include children born abroad and out of wedlock, children of same-sex couples, children commissioned by European parents through international commercial surrogacy and children who have been abandoned. In any and all such cases, it is vital to recall that the right to acquire a nationality is a right of every child. The crucial point being that the best interest of the child to be protected from statelessness must prevail over any questions which may arise from parents’ status or choices (including where the circumstances of birth are complex or perceived by some as controversial). Similarly, a child’s right to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, must be assured – including where the parents’ action (or failure to take action) is what jeopardises this. The bottom line is that states must do more to defend children’s right to a nationality, whatever the circumstance, and ensure that their laws and practice reflect this commitment.
ENS’s research also reveals a worrying lack of accurate data which compounds the problem of childhood statelessness by denying it visibility. Therefore improved data collection on children’s access to nationality by relevant stakeholders, as well as closer monitoring by human rights bodies, are important complements to measures which strengthen law and practice around the avoidance of childhood statelessness. Crucially, they can help to track and encourage progress towards this goal. Equally, for those contexts in which children’s enjoyment of the right to acquire a nationality continues to pose particular challenges, further research and additional standard-setting or doctrinal guidance – as needed – can help states to identify and implement effective solutions.
Our report concludes with a series of recommendations designed to guide action to more effectively address – and ultimately end – childhood statelessness in Europe. These are addressed towards those stakeholders whose engagement will be most critical: governments, regional actors, UN human rights bodies, UN agencies and civil society/academia. Some general recommendations identified by ENS include the need to:
- Elevate the goal of ending childhood statelessness as a major policy priority – including with regard to the design and implementation of national action plans under the framework of UNHCR’s #ibelong initiative.
- Utilise the report to continue to promote the mainstreaming of statelessness in the policy discourses and strategic plans of relevant stakeholders, including the various NGOs working on child rights issues at a national and/or regional level.
- Improve communications strategies to enable a much wider audience to learn about the causes and consequences of childhood statelessness, and thus to exert greater societal and political pressure for reform.
- Translate increased understanding of the problem into a greater mobilisation of resources to address it.
- Underscore and complement awareness-raising gains with new targeted research in order to plug information gaps as well as deepen knowledge of why/where childhood statelessness occurs, and how to address it.
Over the coming months we will be working hard to try to attract new supporters for our campaign. Readers of this blog will have already met several of the individuals/organisations who have been helping to drive our efforts to date – be they reporting back on our Budapest conference, providing expert analysis, or advice on the use of strategic litigation or social media, teaching children about statelessness or highlighting issues in Italy, Macedonia and Romania. ENS is privileged to have a very active campaign steering group (comprising Jyothi Kanics, Alexandra Semeriak, Laura van Waas, Zoe Gardner and Ivanka Kostic), as well as to be able to work with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion as an expert partner for the campaign. Our activities also benefit from a very strong partnership with UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, including the opportunity to work against the inspiring backdrop UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign which seeks to eradicate statelessness globally by 2024. Moreover, ENS counts itself very lucky to have influential allies such as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, who has endorsed ENS’s report and will speak at its launch event in Strasbourg later today. Many others, both inside and outside the ENS network, also continue to provide invaluable support.
However, it is recognised that the challenge now it to engage a much wider coalition of actors if we are really to be able to end the scourge of childhood statelessness in Europe. Watch this space for more on how, through our campaign, we will try to tackle this in the coming months and throughout 2016!
You can download the full report ”No Child Should be Stateless” here, and hard copies are also available on request. Click here for further information about the campaign as well as the regional conference convened by ENS in Budapest in June 2015, and to access in-depth country studies conducted by ENS members in Albania, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Macedonia, Poland , Romania and Slovenia. Anyone interested in getting involved with ENS’s campaign should contact firstname.lastname@example.org