Statelessness in Denmark: UNHCR mapping sheds light on national law and practice

Eva Ersbøll - Senior researcher emerita, The Danish Institute for Human Rights
/ 8 mins read

UNHCR’s representation for the Nordic and Baltic countries has conducted statelessness mappings in the eight countries in the Northern Europe region to raise awareness and provide a better understanding of the situation of stateless persons in each country. In November 2020, the report on the mapping of statelessness in Denmark was published, giving an overview of the situation of statelessness in Denmark, the national legal framework, and areas demonstrating both good practice and the need for improvement.

UNHCR Denmark mapping study report cover
UNHCR's mapping study provides an overview of good practice and key gaps in Danish law and practice (Photo: UNHCR)

The mapping context

The Danish mapping goes back to 2012, when I first undertook the mapping task as an independent consultant under the supervision of UNHCR. The mapping began in the wake of the so-called ‘statelessness case’ that had prompted Danish attention on statelessness issues, which until then had received little focus.  

At the beginning of 2011, Danish media reported that the Ministry of Integration had, for some years, wrongfully rejected Danish citizenship applications from stateless persons who were entitled to Danish citizenship under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (in Denmark, persons aged 18-21 years) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (children below the age of 18 years).

With this increased public awareness, more families argued that they had stateless children born in Denmark and who were thus entitled to Danish citizenship.

As part of my citizenship studies at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), I investigated the question, and it became apparent that many stateless persons were wrongly registered in the Aliens Register and the Civil Registration System (CPR) as nationals of the countries of their former habitual residence, rather than as stateless persons. Consequently, their children born in Denmark were also registered as nationals of their parents’ country of origin and as such, were not granted access to national legal safeguards entitling lawfully resident Danish born stateless children to Danish citizenship from birth.

This eye-opener led to fruitful cooperation with senior officials at the Danish Immigration Service (IS), who wanted to improve the IS’s statelessness registration procedures and correct earlier wrongful registrations. In 2012, letters were sent to people from countries with high incidences of statelessness, namely Syria, Myanmar and Bhutan, who had been granted a residence permit in Denmark between 2000 and 2011, informing them of their possible right to be re-registered as stateless and their right to acquire an alien’s passport. Leaflets about the possibility to re-register as a stateless person were also broadly distributed.

Subsequently, the IS received applications for re-registration as a stateless person in large numbers from all three countries, many comprising both the applicant and the applicant’s family members. Refusals were given in a small number of cases, and several appeals were decided upon. The initial re-registration process was completed in November 2012, when 804 applicants had been registered as stateless persons, compared to 171 such registrations in 2011. The re-registration process has since continued.

Statelessness in Denmark

The mapping of statelessness in Denmark comprised of desk research and consultations with governmental and non-governmental stakeholders within the statelessness area, including representatives of the Ministry of Integration, the IS, the National Police and NGOs including The Danish-Bhutanese Culture Organisation and The Danish-Palestinian Friendship Association.

An additional part of the mapping involved gathering statistics on stateless persons in Denmark, which showed that between 2008 - 2012, there have been a consistent number of stateless persons with residence rights in Denmark, ranging from around 3,000 to 3,500 individuals. Most were from other countries of origin and statelessness was normally caused by factors lying outside Denmark.

For different reasons, the publishing of the mapping report was delayed and therefore, the statistics were updated to include data up until 31 December 2017. The updates show that the annual number of stateless persons with residence in Denmark rose to 4,558 in 2014 and to 7,784 in 2017 (today, according to Statistics Denmark, the number has risen to 8,556). This steady increase may be explained by both the rising number of stateless refugees, particularly from Syria, and the improved statelessness registration procedure. Simultaneously, there has also been an increase in the number of stateless persons born in Denmark. In 2012, the number was 213 persons, among them 179 children and in 2017, the number had risen to 561 persons with 520 of them children (today, the number has risen to 618 persons with 585 children).

These numbers must be seen against the fact that Denmark has chosen to implement its obligations to avoid statelessness according to the 1961 Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) separately. In general, Denmark has opted to grant Danish citizenship to Danish born stateless persons through an application procedure.

The 1961 Convention is implemented in the naturalisation circular section 26 so that persons born stateless in Denmark may apply for Danish citizenship between the ages of 18 – 21 years. To acquire Danish citizenship, they must have their habitual residence in Denmark and fulfil all requirements under the 1961 Convention. The CRC is implemented in the naturalisation circular section 17 so that lawfully resident Danish born stateless children may apply for Danish citizenship from birth without needing to meet otherwise applicable requirements. In the mapping report, UNHCR expresses concern that there may be stateless children born in Denmark who are unable to acquire lawful residence in the country and therefore cannot benefit from this provision. Instead, they may have to wait until they turn 18 before being eligible to acquire Danish citizenship in accordance with section 26 of the naturalisation circular. In light of the obligations cumulating from the 1961 Convention and the CRC, UNHCR interprets that the right of every child to acquire a nationality and the principle of the best interests of the child “create a presumption that States need to provide for the automatic acquisition of their nationality at birth by an otherwise stateless child born in their territory, in accordance with article 1(1)(a) of the 1961 Convention. However, if the State imposes conditions for an application as allowed for under article 1(2) of the 1961 Convention, this must not have the effect of leaving the child stateless for a considerable period.”

Key findings: good practice but gaps remain

The mapping identifies progress made at national level, such as Denmark’s effort to improve the procedure in which statelessness is established for the purposes of correct registration, and to adopt a legislative basis for the authorities’ registration of foreigners’ personal data (including statelessness). It also acknowledges steps taken to (re)introduce some of the provisions of the 1961 Convention and the CRC relating to every child’s right to a nationality in Danish law. Up to 2013, the 1961 Convention was not implemented in Danish law, and the CRC was implemented in an unclear manner.

However, UNHCR has identified certain gaps, including with regards to ensuring that stateless persons can enjoy the rights they are entitled to. For example, stateless persons encountered difficulties regarding the high requirements for acquiring a secure residence status. The mapping also reveals gaps in ensuring that stateless persons born in Denmark do not remain stateless for an extended period, as well as in compiling and maintaining data and statistics on stateless people.

Recommendations for improvement

UNHCR has made recommendations in several key areas to address some of the gaps identified in the mapping study, in order to facilitate Denmark’s full compliance with its obligations under the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, as well as other relevant international instruments such as the CRC and Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and improve the protection of stateless people as well as the prevention and reduction of statelessness nationally. Concerning the identification and registration of statelessness, UNHCR recommends that Denmark harmonises data collection between various government institutions in charge of registering stateless persons to ensure a consistent approach and data covering stateless persons in Denmark. The report also calls for further research to provide an updated and full picture of the human face of statelessness in Denmark, including interviews with stateless persons.

To improve statelessness determination and protection of the rights of stateless persons, UNHCR advises that Denmark further develops its statelessness registration procedure to determine who is stateless, including persons in detention or deportation centres, and introduces provisions guaranteeing applicants, as well as persons recognised as stateless, the respective rights to which they are entitled under the 1954 convention. UNHCR further recommends the introduction of a specific residence permit for persons recognised as stateless, providing for these stateless persons’ “lawfully staying” rights under the 1954 Convention, as elaborated in UNHCR’s Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons.

To better prevent and reduce statelessness, UNHCR calls on Denmark to incorporate provisions in the Nationality Act on Danish born stateless children and young persons’ right to acquire Danish citizenship (rather than in the naturalisation circular), and to allow children who are born stateless in Denmark to acquire Danish citizenship at birth automatically, ex lege. Alternatively, if this recommendation is not accepted, and Denmark continues to grant Danish citizenship though an application procedure, UNHCR urges that Denmark allows stateless children who are born in Denmark and who reside in the country habitually without having a lawful residence to submit their application as soon as possible after birth in order not to be left stateless for an extended period. Moreover, UNHCR recommends that Danish born stateless children and young stateless persons who are entitled to Danish citizenship are informed about the entitlement individually and that Danish born stateless persons aged 18 - 21 are exempt from the obligation to pay a fee for a citizenship application, in addition to children who are already exempt. Finally, UNHCR calls for a real, substantial facilitation of naturalisation for stateless persons born outside the territory of Denmark.

What next? The Danish government’s response

The Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration has stressed that Denmark has an interest in solving the stateless problem and that the government supports UNHCR’s global action plan to end statelessness. The minister has taken notice of UNHCR’s recommendations in the mapping report and further noted that none of the recommendations indicate that Denmark is not considered to be complying with its obligations under international law towards stateless persons in Denmark.

The minister’s statement on Denmark’s interest in solving the statelessness problem follows a pledge from Denmark at UNHCR’s High Level Segment on Statelessness in October 2019 to continue its efforts for the general avoidance of statelessness and moreover, to work to improve cooperation between national authorities regarding the identification of stateless persons. Taking into consideration that, since 2012 Denmark has witnessed a gradual increase in the number of resident stateless persons, including stateless persons born in the country, Danish efforts to avoid statelessness in the years to come should be reflected in initiatives leading to a decrease in the number of cases of statelessness in the country.

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