Are we on the right track to address statelessness in Europe?

/ 6 mins read

This time last year, I was reflecting on how governments across Europe are failing to take sufficient action to break the cycle of statelessness in Europe, although there were glimmers of hope as several countries were discussing legal amendments to address statelessness. Some of these discussions have now made their way into law.

Country flags for all StatelessnessINDEX countries

As we launch two new country profiles, Türkiye and Georgia, and 15 country updates in our Statelessness Index, let’s examine what has changed. How far have these developments taken us towards better protection for people living in Europe without a nationality? Have countries in the region managed to significantly reduce statelessness?

Back in March 2023, we highlighted four key areas that needed urgent action. We called on governments to:

  • Introduce statelessness determination procedures that are fair, accessible, and lead to dedicated protection
  • Strengthen safeguards to prevent childhood statelessness
  • Address discrimination as a route cause of statelessness
  • Improve identification of statelessness in data collection systems, mapping studies, and in the context of asylum and detention

Overall, it’s encouraging that we have seen some examples of positive developments across all of these areas in the last 12 months. In this piece, I will reflect on some of this progress, but also on the missed opportunities, why it still isn’t enough, and flag other worrying trends that have emerged.

Some countries are leading the way in reducing in situ statelessness

We’ve highlighted many times that addressing discrimination as a root cause is critical to resolving statelessness this generation. Last year, North Macedonia approved several legislative packages to resolve known cases of statelessness while also taking preventive action to curb its recurrence. Measures are being implemented to document individuals in the country who lack legal identity and confirm - or ensure they acquire - nationality. A simplified and facilitated procedure for birth registration has been adopted, providing that every child must be registered irrespective of the nationality or status of their parents. Although it is early days for implementation, the measures demonstrate North Macedonia’s commitment to ending statelessness and is a welcome show of leadership, supported by the dedicated work of civil society and collaboration between national and international stakeholders.

Despite the continuing impacts of the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukraine has also stepped up its efforts to address statelessness, approving a new action plan to promote civil registration and documentation, and proposing a law to introduce a simplified birth registration procedure for children born in Temporarily Occupied Territories. There have also been initiatives by local authorities to reduce the administrative costs of processing identity documents for some vulnerable groups.

However, in other countries, progress has unfortunately been slower or non-existent. Our Index updates reveal, for example, that Croatia has not included measures on the reduction of statelessness in its new National Plan for Roma Inclusion, and despite the best efforts of civil society, Serbia has still not taken sufficient action to address the challenges to immediate birth registration of children born to undocumented mothers, nor barriers to late birth registration.

New mechanisms to determine statelessness

2023 was marked by the introduction of new statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) in several countries – or, rather, of intended SDPs, as in some cases these don’t quite earn the title.

Positively, Albania published long-awaited instructions to operationalise its SDP adopted in 2021, although we are still waiting to see how it will be implemented in practice. The Portuguese Parliament also passed legislation that introduces the definition of a stateless person in national law and recognises that stateless people are entitled to a travel document and statelessness status. We are awaiting the secondary legislation needed to establish the procedure, outline the rights granted to a recognised stateless person, and nominate the authority responsible for assessing claims.

The Netherlands also adopted long-discussed legal reforms on statelessness in 2023. The new procedure for determining statelessness, with both an administrative and a judicial route, has been criticised for not leading to any residence rights once recognised as stateless. Similarly, Czech law has a procedure for determining statelessness since July, which is also insufficient as it only leads to tolerated stay for one year with very limited rights. Neither of these can truly be considered an SDP as they do not lead to adequate protection for people recognised as stateless. Belgium is still discussing a proposal to establish a new administrative procedure to determine statelessness leading to a residence permit, but our joint opinion with our Belgian member, NANSEN, outlines several concerns.

European countries need to step up their efforts to introduce and implement statelessness determination procedures that are fair, accessible, and lead to dedicated protection in line with their obligations under the 1954 Convention. There are several examples of good practice to draw from in the Statelessness Index, but the region is lagging behind the Americas in ensuring access to rights for stateless people.

Access to a nationality is often being restricted, not facilitated

Statelessness can only be solved by ensuring everyone can realise their right to a nationality. This should include providing facilitated routes to naturalisation for stateless migrants and refugees. This is an area we have been highlighting since the launch of the Index as one where there are very few examples of good practice in Europe. Instead, over the last year we have seen a restriction of many of the existing routes to naturalisation, with stricter eligibility requirements now in force in Cyprus, France, and Ukraine, and proposals for further restrictions in Sweden. Stateless people are often not exempted from these requirements, despite severely suffering the impact of not accessing a nationality. Germany also missed a chance to introduce safeguards to prevent statelessness in its recently amended Citizenship Act, even after tireless advocacy and awareness-raising by Statefree, one of our members.

Since August 2023, several municipalities were instructed by the Belgian Immigration Office to withdraw the Belgian nationality of children born in the country to Palestinian parents (who had acquired it on the basis that they were otherwise stateless). The instructions issued by the Immigration Office are considered illegal by legal experts and the Belgian ombudsperson, and ENS has published a briefing outlining our concerns that this will risk increasing statelessness in Belgium.

To end on a celebratory note, we must welcome Moldova’s improved safeguard to prevent childhood statelessness, which now ensures that every child born stateless in its territory will be granted Moldovan nationality regardless of their parents’ status. North Macedonia also has a path to facilitated acquisition of nationality, which remains open until August, for people who continued to live on the territory after 8 September 1991. The Netherlands has also extended the right to acquire Dutch nationality to stateless children without a residence permit who were born in the Netherlands, although this is still subject to proof of five years’ ‘uninterrupted stable residence’.

We still believe that together we can solve statelessness

Knowledge is a powerful tool for change. As we see the Statelessness Index increasingly being used by international actors, governments, stateless changemakers, and civil society to help understand and target efforts to solve statelessness, our belief that we can achieve this by working together grows stronger. We need to continue ensuring visibility and prioritisation of statelessness across policy agendas, and we invite you to stay involved and support the work we do with our members and affected communities.

To hear more from other experts on statelessness across Europe, watch the recording of our webinar where we discussed these changes and how to move forwards.

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