Although about 96% of all permanently residing children in Latvia are Latvian citizens, the statelessness among non-citizens’ children has attracted much attention by both domestic and international observers. Despite the fact that Latvia has made several efforts to simplify the process of children’s registration as citizens in recent years, the numbers of stateless children is still high and requires further solutions. Available statistics show that as of 1 July 2014, there were 8,743 children non-citizens, including 6,467 who have not reached the age of 15, whose parents, due to various reasons, have not registered their children as Latvian citizens.
There are two categories of persons, who are not citizens of any state, in Latvia:
Non-citizens, who may apply for Latvian citizenship according to the Citizenship Law. The Law on the Status of Those Former USSR Citizens Who Do Not Have the Citizenship of Latvia or Any Other State, adopted in 1995, defines “non-citizens” as those former Soviet citizens who were registered as living on the territory of Latvia on 1 July 1992, or if their last registered place of residence before that date was on the territory of Latvia and their children - provided that they have no other citizenship.
Stateless persons, who have undergone the statelessness determination procedure (established in 1999 by the Law on Stateless Persons). Latvia joined the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in 1992, but to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons – in 1999.
Statistics show that as of 1 July 2014, the Latvian population of 2.172,812 included 1.817,866 citizens and 276,797 non-citizens, along with other categories of the population (77,828 foreigners - persons with temporary or permanent residence permit, 172 stateless persons, 56 refugees and 92 persons with alternative status, or subsidiary protection).
The Citizenship Law provides that a child both or one of whose parents at the time of his or her birth are registered as Latvian citizens can obtain citizenship upon the volition expressed by his or her legal representative if the child has not reached the age of 15 years. Registration can be done directly by the child if he or she is between 15 to 18 years of age. If one of the parents acquires or has acquired Latvian citizenship through naturalisation, upon a request of the person to be naturalised the children of such person who are up to 15 years of age and whose permanent place of residence is in Latvia also acquire Latvian citizenship. Since the establishment of this naturalization process (1 February 1995) until mid 2014, it can be seen that 141,993 persons, including 14, 331 underage children, have been granted the citizenship of Latvia.
The core issue with regard to child statelessness concerns non-citizens’ and stateless persons’ children, born after 21 August 1991. The procedure of registration for these children was established by the 1998 Citizenship Law amendments in 1999. The non-citizen parents can submit an application requesting the recognition of the child through a registration procedure, provided the child is under 15 and certain conditions are satisfied (including with regard to residence). Between the ages of 15 and 18, the child can her/himself submit the application, provided other conditions are met, including the demonstration of fluency in the Latvian language. The 2013 Citizenship Law amendments provide that a child who is born in Latvia after 21 August 1991 shall be recognised as a Latvian citizen during the registration of the child’s birth fact on the basis of the volition expressed by one of the parents, if certain prescribed conditions are met.
Many parents have not taken advantage of the opportunity to apply for their children’s registration: statistics show that as of 2014, there are more than 12, 000 persons, who were born in Latvia with the status of non-citizen (ie. since 21 August 1991). There have been both procedural and subjective factors, which have created this situation. According to a survey of the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (OCMA), 85% of non-citizens were willing that their children acquire the Latvian citizens, while 15% were against it. Most of those parents (24%) who said that they did not wish their children to be Latvian citizens, believed that the citizenship should be granted automatically, 21% were not aware that the citizenship may be acquired without the requirement to pass exams; 17% said that there are favourable travel provisions for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by retaining non-citizen status; 18% mentioned the lack of time; some respondents (6%) could not make an application, as they did not know how to reach the child’s second parent (until the 2013 Citizenship Law amendments, the agreement of both parents was necessary) while 2% stated that the second parent is against the child’s registration as a Latvian citizen.
The legislative amendments of 2011 and 2013 have to a large extent eased children’s registration as Latvian citizens upon birth. First, the 2011 Rules of the Cabinet of Ministers provided that application for citizenship of the child can be submitted not only to OCMA, but also to a registry office, upon registering the birth of a child. As a result and as outlined in a recent report by the Latvian Centre for Human Rights, the number of registered non-citizens’ children as Latvian citizens increased from 25% in 2011 to 44% in 2012.
Second, the 2013 Citizenship Law amendments, made the recognition of a child as a Latvian citizen possible through registration of the birth by one parent (instead of both of the parents); the same provision applies to registration of children, born after 21 August 1991, as Latvian citizens. According to the data provided by the Naturalisation Board, the number of new-born non-citizens’ children increased from 52% in the time period before the law amendments entered into force (1.01.2013 - 1.10.2013) to 79% in the first quarter of 2014 and to 88% - in the second quarter of 2014.
In the meantime, there is no major increase in registration of children who were already born as non-citizens. The proposals by the UNHCR and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities to grant automatic citizenship (unless the parents decline) to non-citizens’ children at birth and to apply this provision retroactively to all non-citizens’ children born after 21 August 1991 were not supported by the majority in the parliament. However, an additional proposed condition that the parents are required to pledge that they will help the child to learn Latvian and to be loyal to the state was also not finally adopted, due to the close involvement of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.
It remains to be seen which further measures to promote naturalisation and the acquisition of Latvian citizenship among children the government will decide to implement and support in the near future. Following a survey on the sense of belonging to Latvia conducted in 2014, the Prime Minister made a statement on a need for strengthening the sense of belonging among the minority population. The attitudes of non-citizens towards the citizenship issue and a lack of motivation of acquisition of the Latvian citizenship should not be underestimated as a significant challenge for facilitating children’s registration as Latvian citizens. According to the survey, 80% of non-citizens are not planning to apply for naturalisation during the next 12 months; most of them (30%) do not see any need for citizenship (25% named age as an obstacle, 11% - a lack of the state language proficiency, etc).
The Latvian Centre for Human Rights as an independent NGO believes that, in the current situation, more should be done to raise awareness among non-citizens, including teenagers, on the benefits of being a citizen and on the opportunities to apply for citizenship. Some surveys and the data on registration of new-born children as citizens reveal that most of the non-citizens parents are in favour of Latvian citizenship for their children. Therefore, there should be further steps to facilitate the implementation of the child’s right to a nationality in practice and to assist parents in initiating the registration procedure.