Last week the European Youth Parliament (EYP), an educational parliamentary simulation programme for young people, celebrated its 80th International Session in the German city of Leipzig, attended by more than 300 students from 39 European countries. The aim of this kind of activity is to give European youth the opportunity to engage in exciting debates and exchange their own ideas and opinions about current political issues with a focus on fundamental rights in Europe, in order to draft possible sustainable solutions and political actions following the rules of the European Parliament.
Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the German reunification, this session had as motto “From tearing down walls to setting new stones”, aiming to overcome the still existing barriers in Europe through respect, dialogue, understanding and cooperation. Under a broader topic area of “Identity”, one of the conference Committees on Human Rights (DROI I) discussed particularly the issue of statelessness and the need for a common approach by European States to provide every individual with a nationality and a legal identity, and to eliminate the administrative walls that prevent stateless people from enjoying their social, political and economical rights. As part of the programme, I had the great opportunity to represent the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) at an expert hearing session, talking about the situation of stateless persons in the world and specifically in Europe, and explaining the work that is being done by national, regional and international organizations such as ENS itself and the UNHCR. During this informal Q&A session I was both challenged and inspired by the knowledge, reasoning and interest of the delegates and, as it usually happens when engaging with youth, I have probably ended up learning more than they have.
As the majority of us who work in this field or have been familiar with the issue of statelessness for a longer time, I was curious to see whether the students had heard about the topic before the conference and if yes, in which context. Many knew about the problem because they live in a country with a large stateless population, such as the case of “non-citizens” in Latvia and Estonia, or because they have heard about the difficulties of the Roma community to obtain a valid identity document. A few had actual friends or acquaintances that had been or still are stateless. And of course, many didn’t hear about this issue at all before joining this session of the EYP.
Yet, being accustomed to talk about statelessness from an academic point of view, always followed by statistical data and legislative review, I have to admit I was surprised to hear one of the delegates mentioning the movie “The terminal”, where the protagonist, played by Tom Hanks and inspired in the real story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, gets trapped in an airport and denied entry to the United States because his passport is no longer internationally recognized due to a coup in his home country. We tend to forget how much easier it is to understand a complex topic like statelessness if we explain it through a human story. Behind every number and case of statelessness, there is a personal struggle that, unfortunately, is too often overlooked by the society and the international community. Thus, the efforts of the ENS and also UNHCR to show the human face of this issue are not only welcomed by the general public but also necessary to give visibility to this invisible struggle.
During the expert hearing delegates asked questions regarding the work of ENS and UNHCR, concretely related to some of the facts mentioned in the recently published ENS’ “No Child Should be Stateless” and UNHCR’s “I am Here, I Belong: the Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness” reports. Consequently, students were also curious about the details and objectives of the #StatelessKids and #IBelong campaigns that both organizations are carrying out. Of course delegates were also interested in pointing out examples and facts from their own countries, some of them noting that they were shocked to discover so many statelessness cases back home that were never shown in the news or talked about at school.
What took most of the time, though, was the discussion around the possible actions and solutions that can be taken, and who should be responsible for this. Delegates shared a common feeling of frustration because of the lack of clarity regarding the responsible institutions for resolving this matter. “Who should we talk to in order to address this issue?” was one of the most asked questions. The fact that in some countries it is the ministry of the interior, while in other States it is the competency of another department that deals with the issue of statelessness, is complicating the task of finding a long-term solution and implementing effective statelessness prevention safeguards. Also, the lack of reliable updated statistical data in every country makes it difficult to present good arguments to national stakeholders and to mobilize the necessary actors, who too often seem to be more reticent to agree on the requests and introduce the necessary changes. This lack of political willingness and commitment was also identified by the delegates in regards to the ratification of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. While some of the States party to the conventions are not compliant to their international obligations, others have introduced safeguards despite not having ratified them. Lastly, the delegates also debated about the link between statelessness and the current refugee crisis, especially in regards to the risk of a new population of stateless children due to the absence of a valid birth certificates for children born on the way to Europe, and due to discriminatory laws in countries such as Syria, where mothers are not allowed to transfer their nationality, increasing alarmingly the vulnerability of those fleeing an armed conflict.
The result of this discussion and of the previous and following committee work was captured in a resolution presented to all the EYP participants at the General Assembly. The final text contains recommendations for European institutions, as well as for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), aiming to protect stateless people, facilitate their access to a nationality and prevent the emergence of new cases of statelessness. Specifically the document highlights the urgency of a greater cooperation among European States to share good practices and to financially support the work of organizations such as ENS to monitor compliance with international obligations and the implementation of safeguards in the national legislations, especially related to children born in their territories that would otherwise become stateless. The resolution also insists on the need to include statelessness as a periodic topic of the national and European political agendas, and the need to improve the existing statistics through the establishment of a Data Collection Agency on Statelessness in cooperation with national divisions. Moreover it addresses also the lack of a common naturalization procedure for stateless people, asking European States to adapt it to their social context and economical capabilities and to offer “family naturalization processes”, i.e. parents being able to transfer their acquired nationality through naturalization to their children. In addition, the resolution talks also about the need to include stateless people in activities and conferences organized by local and regional NGOs to integrate them better into society. Last but not least, the resolution also encourages States and NGOs to continue working on facilitating birth registrations, especially in remote areas and refugee camps to avoid the perpetuation of the problem.
These accurate and consistent conclusions are motivating and inspirational. Seeing young people identify the gaps of our current human right protection system and proposing viable solutions confirms that the work we are doing in raising awareness and highlighting the imperfections is not only effective, but also crucial. These young leaders are convinced that there is no room for discrimination in Europe, that there is no room for a divided society between citizens and stateless people. There is only place for diversity, inclusion and respect, for protection of every individual and for mutual support towards a better society. And resolving the issue of statelessness is achievable, but not without engaging youth and stateless people themselves, empowering them to be visible and to have a voice about our common future.
Aleksandra Semeriak is a member of the steering group for the ENS #StatelessKids campaign which includes as a key element engaging young people, including stateless or formerly stateless persons. If you would like to get involved with the campaign please email email@example.com and/or sign up to our mailing list here.