When I started working on statelessness in 2009 I was told by more experienced colleagues from civil society organizations, as well as by public authorities with whom I collaborate, that statelessness “is a non-issue in Romania”, just one of those “very marginal” topics that only affect “a handful of people” (an estimated 300 souls, to be more precise). Indeed, such reported low numbers are repeatedly used to justify a continuing lack of any concrete action related to the prevention and reduction of statelessness.
After spending a few years looking into the issue and becoming more and more convinced things were not as simple as they appeared – as it is often the case - I hit the same wall of denial in 2014 and 2015, as I worked on two different research reports relating to statelessness - the most recent one being the Ending Childhood Statelessness: A Study on Romania Paper, prepared under the European Network on Statelessness campaign ‘None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless’. After this experience, I remain convinced that solving the systemic gaps that exist in both law and policy, as well as practice, entirely depends on a higher level of interest on the part of relevant stakeholders, political will, clear understanding of the issue and additional willingness to assume, as a country, our already existing international obligations. The combination of these factors would, in my view, at last solve a problem that remains unaddressed, and even unseen by most.
It is these unresolved challenges that allow for children to fall through the cracks of a vitiated and ignorant system, and effectively become “invisible”. Below I outline three of the main challenges, and how they could relatively easily be addressed in order that Romania produces no more stateless children.
1. Romania’s international obligations with respect to the prevention of childhood statelessness are not properly met by existing national legislation
There’s a saying according to which “we’re good at theory, practice is what kills us”. I sometime wish that were the case when it comes to childhood statelessness, but unfortunately we’re not good at the theory either. Sure, Romania is a state party to the 1954 Convention relating to the status of stateless persons (with three reservations), the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also a signatory of the 1997 European Convention on Nationality (again, with two reservations). Nevertheless, the state fails short in complying with its own obligations when it comes to preventing childhood statelessness.
One of the important obligations deriving from Articles 1-4 of the 1961 Convention refers to implementing safeguards against statelessness, including for children born in that country to stateless parents or who would otherwise be stateless. However, Romanian legislation does not include any safeguard against statelessness for children born in the country to stateless parents - they become, by effect of the national legislation, stateless as well, and will need to go through the complex naturalization procedure. The laws additionally do not touch upon the issue of children of parents who are unable to prove or pass on their nationality due to administrative or legal barriers and conflicting legal systems – not even a practical assessment is conducted with regard to the actual possibility of parents to pass on such citizenship, or its effectiveness.
Now, turning to the naturalization procedure, there is also a set of issues that make it difficult to access in practice. Romania opted to grant nationality to children born on the territory, who would otherwise be stateless, only upon application, and it ends up leaving such children stateless for a considerable period of time (since it only allows applications from persons of over 18 years of age). There are also some strict conditions, including that of ‘lawful residence’ of ‘at least 8 years’, and not just the ‘habitual residence’ that both Article 6(2)(b) of the ECN as well as Article 1(2)(b) of the 1961 Convention talk about. Meeting these conditions is not enough, because passing an interview is additionally required – which is in fact a demanding test of Romanian history, geography and the Constitution that I suspect most (if not all) 18 year old Romanians would struggle to pass.
I will let you the reader decide whether this procedure, apart from constituting a breach of the country’s obligations deriving from the above-mentioned instruments, is actually in ‘the best interest of the child’ – as all measures relating to children are expected to be.
2. There is very little to no data collected with regard to childhood statelessness
I referred earlier to the ‘around 300 stateless persons’ figure touted over the years. And I must say, that does sound like a small number indeed, especially if you take into account the fact that apparently, a significant proportion of these persons are former Romanian citizens who could fairly easily reacquire Romanian nationality. The figure is also presented in a way that suggests the entire stateless population is pretty much mapped, and that the issues of each community are known and could be quite easily addressed. Except … that’s not completely accurate, for the following reasons:
Romania does not have a statelessness determination procedure, which hinders the authorities’ capacity to identify and properly register stateless parents or children.
There is no possibility to register someone as having unknown or undetermined nationality; not even to consider that someone is ‘at risk of statelessness’, even where nationality may be in dispute for various reasons.
The authorities assume they can, for instance, establish that a child born in Romania to foreign parents will automatically gain his or her parents nationality, without an actual determination made with regard to the possibility to pass such nationality. or its effectiveness in practice.
Realities of everyday life have proven these practices to be ineffective on more than one occasion, and the lack of accurate data continues to make it difficult, if not impossible, to understand the real dimension of the phenomenon and act appropriately towards its reduction and prevention.
There are some gaps in the birth registration system and, while these do not entail statelessness per se, they lead to a situation of near invisibility for children and adults alike.
In Romania, children who are unregistered remain without proof of their identity, and therefore it is impossible to demonstrate their link with the state. Sure, every child has the right to an identity according to the law, and one of the elements of that identity is citizenship. But apparently, ‘every child’ does not mean exactly that. Children who are born and who grow into adulthood with no ‘legal identity’, without being part of the system, cannot access any of their rights; they can only exist in the margins of a society that does not seem to know or care about them.
While I was doing research for the ENS Paper Ending Childhood Statelessness: A Study on Romania, I had the opportunity to interview various stakeholders, and I have to say I was surprised to some extent by the lack of interest or capacity to address the issue of birth registration. I found for instance that Romanian authorities do not collect information about the birth registration rate, which leads me to believe that the number of unregistered births may actually be quite high, especially – but not exclusively – among communities that are marginalized or affected by extreme poverty, such as the Roma. In addition, there are two major issues that lead to failure of birth registration: the first is related to the pre-condition that the mother of the child provides an ID when registering the child (which creates a vicious circle for families where the mothers do not hold papers); and the second is related to the fact that late birth registration entails a judicial procedure, coupled with a medico-legal age assessment (a process which is complex, lengthy and potentially quite expensive).
The issue of birth registration is supposed to have been widely tackled prior to Romania’s EU accession in 2007. What I have seen and learnt shows a different reality at the level of some local communities, but also a wall of denial around the matter.
At a personal level however, involvement in the ENS campaign ‘ None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless has provided me with the opportunity – and challenge – of looking deeper into the situation of childhood statelessness in Romania, but also with the chance to hear the stories behind the ‘invisible children’ that I have referred to so far. Invisible to the system, but very clearly visible to me, these children are faced with refusal and rejection when it comes to the very basic elements of their identity and their very basic rights. Among the people I have met, there is the story of one family that I would like to share a few details of, as it talks very clearly about what invisibility means for the life of children.
Ionela is a 30 something year old woman who, due to complex circumstances, never managed to get proof of her birth being registered. She tried to acquire documents several times, each time being faced with refusals and barriers, mainly due to her lack of financial resources. But she kept trying for her 3 children who are not registered and who, she says, deserve a better life. “I don’t exist”, she once told me, “neither do my children (…) all that I do now is for them”. There was so much sadness and frustration in her voice as she recounted this to me. Her situation was partially solved a few weeks ago, following a judicial procedure and a year-long effort by the Bucharest-based feminist NGO FILIA. Ionela was finally issued a birth certificate; she will also receive an ID and this means that she can start the process for her children to be ‘registered’ as well.
I have rarely seen so much fighting power in one person. But I have to wonder: why should Ionela, her three children, and others in similar situations, have to fight so long and hard for something that we all so easily take for granted? Are we forgetting or ignoring that every child should “have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality”…
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 in Romania 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.