Sweden needs automatic acquisition of nationality at birth for stateless children – here’s why

Jesus Tolmo García, PhD candidate, University of Murcia
/ 7 mins read

On the first January 2023 Sweden will inaugurate its six-month Presidency of the European Union Council. Currently we still know little about the priorities for this period, except for the 18-month programme presented in December 2021 together with France and the Czech Republic, which states that the “three Presidencies will step up efforts at EU level to better protect children”.

Photo: Oscar Helgstrand via Unsplash
Photo: Oscar Helgstrand via Unsplash

The latest UNHCR figures suggest that in 2020 there were approx. 30,000 stateless persons in Sweden. A disproportionate percentage of this group are children under the age of 6. The following piece provides a detailed examination of the available data on statelessness in Sweden, presents the case for why automatic acquisition of nationality at birth is urgently needed for stateless children, and why Sweden should set a good example to their European colleagues in 2023 by addressing this gap.

Dancing with data

According to Annex 5 of the UNHCR Global Trends Report and Statistics Sweden (SCB), at the end of 2020 there were 27,504 stateless persons in Sweden.

Figure 1
FIGURE 1 Persons registered as Stateless or unknown Citizenship in Sweden

This figure is disaggregated into three parts: 14,435 persons registered as stateless, 13,069 persons living in Sweden whose citizenship is unknown and the third category of persons whose nationality is under investigation. While this third group had some statistical weight between 1990 and 2010, in 2019 and 2020 zero persons were recorded in this category.  

Figure 2
Persons registered as Stateless in Sweden 

2006 saw a sudden and substantial increase in the number of persons with ‘unknown citizenship’ (Figure 3). That situation was a consequence of the dissolution of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in the summer of 2006, when their formed citizens were reported by the Swedish Migration Board as having an unknown country of citizenship. However, this situation was corrected over the years.

Figure 3
FIGURE 3 Persons registered as unknown citizenship in Sweden

Nevertheless, from 2012 onwards, the largest number of persons registered under the label of ‘unknown citizenship’ were children under six years of age, with and eight-fold increase in the last decade. In 2020, children under six amounted up to the 71% of the total (9,362 as shown in Figure 4). Speaking in total terms, the same year, children under six represented the 40.7% (11,204) of persons with no nationality in Sweden, when in 2016 this number was just the 29.1% of the total. Certainly, both have to be considered alarming numbers.

Figure 4
FIGURE 4 Children under 6 years of age registered as unknown citizenship

Thus, while we observe that the number of stateless persons has decreased since 2016 (Figure 2), by contrast, the number of persons with unknown citizenship has increased steadily with a high impact on children (see Figures 4 and 5). This shift partly reflects a change in the way births are registered by the Swedish Tax Agency since 2015. While in 2014 over 1000 children born in the country were registered as stateless, in 2015 the number fell to 454. At the same time the number of children registered as “unknown nationality at birth” increased significantly (see Figure 5), from 1,306 in 2014 to 2,239 in 2015.

Figure 5
Birth registrations Sweden 

In order to understand the reasons behind this change, it is worth referring to UNHCR’s Mapping Statelessness in Sweden. This 2016 report revealed that the Swedish Tax Agency and the Swedish Migration Agency, as the national authorities which can register a person as stateless or having ‘unknown’ nationality do not have common guidelines with guidance on how to assess if an individual falls within these categories, including the burden and standard of proof to apply, at their disposal. One consequence is that the standard of proof applied for establishing if an individual is stateless appears to be higher than the one recommended by UNHCR in its Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons”.

This, alongside the findings and developments outlined above, suggest that since 2015 the Swedish agencies have adopted an even more restrictive interpretation of the standard of proof.

Beating around the bush, the 2021 Report

In that context Sweden, during the High-Level Segment on Statelessness held in October 2019, pledged to establish a government-led Inquiry on Nationality that will among other issues look at further measures to limit statelessness, including if certain children born stateless in Sweden could acquire nationality automatically at birth, instead of through the current simplified notification process”. It also committed to “to make improvements in their efforts to address statelessness, have initiated a dialogue with the responsible national agencies to discuss registration of statelessness, nationality and “unknown” nationality”.

These pledges that were reaffirmed at the Global Refugee Forum and seemed promising as a way forward in addressing the existing gaps putting children at risk of statelessness.

Unfortunately, in the 2021 final report on amended rules in the Citizenship Act (SOU 2021:54)  the Committee concluded that a system of automatic acquisition of nationality for certain children born stateless should not be introduced. This is despite the previously outlined data which demonstrates the number of persons registered as with ‘unknown nationality’ has been climbing as a general trend, particularly amid children under 6 years of age. 

It is worth recalling that this recent final report has not been the first time that Sweden has addressed the possibility of automatic acquisition. In 2000, within the framework of the proposition 1999/2000:147 for the  Swedish Nationality Act, although that system was described  as the “clearest way to live up to Sweden's international commitment to avoid statelessness for children”  it was discarded on the grounds that “automatic acquisition at birth does not always correspond to the wishes of the parents”. Now this argument has been left behind, and instead the report states that “provisions on automatic acquisition of citizenship for stateless children born in Sweden may contribute to counteracting the emergence of statelessness”’, However, it goes on to reject the implementation of an automatic acquisition system, arguing this is due to,

  1. the high cost,
  2. the difficulty to design a system which addresses the correct stateless children,
  3. significant proportion of the children registered as stateless at birth are no longer stateless, probably due to them acquiring citizenship within a few years after birth.

Ultimately, the Committee, chose to draft a proposed system of automatic acquisition of Swedish citizenship at birth for a very limited group: children born stateless in Sweden to a parent with permanent residence status and who resides in the country. However, since last summer temporary residence became the main rule, meaning less parents would be granted permanent residence status and even less children would be eligible under the already limited proposal.

With regard to broader legal principles, it is worth noting that under Article 1 of the 1961 Convention, the imposition of certain conditions for the automatic acquisition of citizenship is not permissible.  Furthermore, the European Convention on Nationality does not establish any requirements regarding the automatic acquisition of nationality at birth, apart from requiring that the child born on its territory does “not acquire at birth another nationality”. Thus, the current proposal is not in line with either Convention. Furthermore, the Committee’s proposal would not be in line with the right of every child to acquire a nationality or the principle of the best interests of the child, enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), that creates a presumption that States need to provide for the acquisition at birth or as soon as possible after birth.

The committee has also argued that a significant proportion of the children registered as stateless at birth are no longer stateless. In practice the above data demonstrates this position to be inaccurate: the number of children under six years of age registered as stateless or with ‘unknown nationality’ has steadily grown since 2010, and of the 3,190 children registered in 2016 as stateless or with ‘unknown nationality’ at the end of 2020, 35% of them (1,130) still lacked a nationality.

As for the cost-related concerns, just recall the findings of the CRC Committee, that stated "in terms of budgets, ‘implementing children’s rights’ means that States parties are obliged to mobilize, allocate and spend public resources in a manner that adheres to their obligations of implementation."  

In this case, the estimated amount appears to be reasonable and proportionate to the purpose to be achieved.

Recommended next steps

Going forward, common guidelines on how to determine and/or register a child born in Sweden as stateless or as having "unknown nationality" are urgently needed to ensure that same criteria, burden and standard of proof is consistently applied according to UNHCR recommendations.  Having nationality status determined as soon as possible in a child’s life guarantees that a system of automatic acquisition addresses the correct stateless children and would reduce the number of children at risk of statelessness due to not having their nationality established.

To ensure efficacy in practice, these guidelines should be accompanied by the implementation of additional procedural and ‘evidentiary safeguards for children,  including priority processing of their claims, provision of appropriately trained legal representatives, interviewers and interpreters, as well as the assumption of a greater share of the burden of proof by the State’ (Guidelines on Statelessness nº 2, para. 66).

Furthermore, the Swedish Government should consider a system of automatic acquisition of nationality for children born in Sweden who would otherwise be stateless, without any additional requirements. In contrast to the Committee's recommendations, this would be the proper tool to address the existing gaps in the system of birth registration and ensure access to a nationality for children in Sweden.

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