A new EU child rights strategy: Galvanising action to end childhood statelessness

Editorial
Khadija Badri - Advocacy and Communications Officer, European Network on Statelessness
/ 8 mins read

Over 2020, the European Commission has been laying the groundwork for a new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child for 2021-24, to provide a framework for EU action on childrenā€™s rights. ENS has been closely engaging with the development of the strategy, andĀ submitted a position paper to the Commission's public consultation laying out clear and targeted recommendations for action by the European Commission, other EU institutions and EU Member States, to effectively address childhood statelessness.

Image
Infant with rubber ducks
Photo: Greg Constantine

Since ENS launched our pan-regional #StatelessKids campaign in 2014 calling for urgent action to end childhood statelessness in Europe, some improvements have been made in the region to prevent children in Europe growing up without a nationality.

In November 2016, following efforts made by the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS) and UNHCR, with support from ENS through the campaign, the Norwegian government issued an administrative instruction to officials to disregard the lawful stay requirement for acquisition of Norwegian nationality where children would otherwise be stateless. Tireless work from UNHCR and our member Tirana Legal Aid Society (TLAS), including as part of our wider work to tackle Roma statelessness in the region, also saw the Albanian Parliament adopt amendments in 2018, which remove barriers to birth registration and reduce the risk of childhood statelessness. Some practical barriers to birth registration persist, however, requiring a focus on effective implementation of these amendments.

We have also seen important progress made at regional level, with the European Council adopting conclusions on statelessness in 2015. A petition we handed over to the European Parliament with over 22,000 signatures as part of the #StatelessKids campaign in 2016, and our collaboration with the European Parliament Intergroup on Childrenā€™s Rights helped persuade the European Parliament to hold a dedicated hearing on statelessness in 2017. Through our continued collaboration with the European Parliament and other regional forums such as the Council of Europe European Committee on Legal Cooperation, childhood statelessness has been addressed in European Commission communications, parliamentary resolutions*, and the Council of Europe Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe, as previously highlighted on the ENS blog.

And yet, progress towards a Europe where every childā€™s right to acquire a nationality is protected remains slow. Much more needs to be done both regionally and nationally. The new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child provides an opportunity to galvanise concrete commitments and actions from both States and regional institutions to end childhood statelessness. Ā 

The new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

Over the past year, the European Commission has been laying the groundwork for a new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child for 2021-24, to provide a framework for EU action on childrenā€™s rights. The strategy will include actions for the EU, Member States and other institutions and stakeholders to address, among other areas: the rights of the most vulnerable children; childrenā€™s rights in the digital age; the prevention of and fight against violence; and the promotion of child-friendly justice.

Throughout this year, ENS has been closely engaging with the development of the strategy, contributing to a joint position paper endorsed by 27 other organisations and UNICEF. Together with Missing Children Europe, we presented at the 13th European Forum on the Rights of the Child on behalf of the Initiative for Children in Migration, on the need for the strategy to build inclusive societies for children in migration, including stateless children. During one of the forumā€™s high-level panels, Velina Todorova (Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child) highlighted that it is vital for a child to have a nationality at birth in order to access rights and protection, with David Lega MEP recognising that nationality is also a matter of identity and wellbeing for children.

Since September, the European Commission has been seeking feedback to help inform the development of the strategy, through an online public consultation. ENS has submitted a position paper to the consultation laying out clear and targeted recommendations for action by the European Commission, other EU institutions and EU Member States, to effectively address childhood statelessness.

Addressing childhood statelessness in the new strategy

As highlighted in our policy briefing and our #StatelessJourneys research, children in migration often encounter discrimination because there is no regional guidance or mechanisms in place to facilitate the identification and recording of statelessness during migration and asylum procedures. Officials responsible for identifying and recording nationality status on arrival often lack awareness about statelessness and who might be affected, including children. Very little training or information resources are available to registration officials, which can lead to misconceptions about nationality status and statelessness.

To address this gap, we are calling on the European Commission, the EU Asylum Agency, Frontex and EU Member States to implement a number of targeted actions that will build the capacity of frontline officials in Member States and relevant EU agencies to respond to statelessness and nationality problems in the migration and asylum context, including among children. This includes action to prioritise the accurate identification and recording of nationality status, strengthened screening for protection needs or vulnerabilities related to statelessness, and appropriate referrals to statelessness determination procedures.

Some children in Europe still face the risk of statelessness due to persisting barriers to birth registration stemming from direct or indirect discrimination. Certain groups are disproportionately affected by such barriers including members of minority groups such as Romani people, refugees and migrants, and children of same-sex couples. The European Commission, other EU agencies such as the Fundamental Rights Agency, and Member States must act to promote and ensure universal access to birth registration and certification for all children, both within the EU and in third countries, regardless of the childā€™s parentsā€™ documentation or residence status, or any other aspect of their identity.

Only half of European States have full legal safeguards in place in their nationality laws that enable children to acquire a nationality where they would otherwise be stateless, including children born either on the territory or to nationals abroad, foundlings and adopted children. Through the new child rights strategy, the European Commission can promote and support Member States to take measures to introduce, improve and implement legal safeguards in national law to prevent childhood statelessness.

Finally, only 12 countries across Europe, including six EU countries, have statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) in place to identify and determine statelessness and grant stateless people the protections they are entitled to under the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. It is not clear whether these existing procedures are adapted when applied to children, in line with UNHCR guidance to ensure they are child rights based.

We call on the European Commission to commit to promoting activities aimed at introducing and improving (child rights-based) statelessness determination procedures to enable States to meet their international obligations towards stateless people in a migratory context, ensure protection in line with childrenā€™s best interests, and the realisation of their right to acquire a nationality.

Other actors, such as the European Guardianship Network can also play a crucial role in ensuring SDPs are child rights-based, by working together with the Commission to build the capacity of guardianship services to understand and identify risks of statelessness for unaccompanied children and young people, and to work with competent authorities at national level to ensure that unaccompanied minors are provided with a guardian throughout procedures.

The need for a collaborative approach

The European Commission describes the protection of childrenā€™s rights as an objective of the European Union, and ā€˜a guiding principle for the action of the EU institutions and bodies, and for the EU Member Statesā€™. To put this guiding principle into action, the new strategy must include concrete activities at both national and regional level that protect every childā€™s right to a nationality, and the rights of stateless children. Whilst Member States have competence in deciding their nationality laws, this competence exists within the limits of international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires all States in Europe to uphold every childā€™s right to acquire a nationality, and to act in the best interest of the child. Our practical recommendations for the European Commission and EU agencies demonstrate the crucial role of the EU in supporting States to uphold this obligation, and in ending childhood statelessness in the region.

The European Commission describes the protection of childrenā€™s rights as an objective of the European Union, and ā€˜a guiding principle for the action of the EU institutions and bodies, and for the EU Member Statesā€™. To put this guiding principle into action, the new strategy must include concrete activities at both national and regional level that protect every childā€™s right to a nationality, and the rights of stateless children. Whilst Member States have competence in deciding their nationality laws, this competence exists within the limits of international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires all States in Europe to uphold every childā€™s right to acquire a nationality, and to act in the best interest of the child. Our practical recommendations for the European Commission and EU agencies demonstrate the crucial role of the EU in supporting States to uphold this obligation, and in ending childhood statelessness in the region.

For its part, ENS will continue to support and lead regional and national activities towards addressing childhood statelessness over the coming years. We are currently working with our members to conduct participatory action research in five European countries with refugee children and their families to evidence the risks of statelessness they face. In our ongoing 18-month project focused on understanding and addressing childhood statelessness in the UK, we aim to evidence and promote the reduction of childhood statelessness in the UK.

Through analysis using data from our #StatelessnessIndex, as well as work under our #StatelessKids campaign and #StatelessJourneys initiative, we have identified the determination of the childā€™s nationality and whether a child would otherwise be stateless to be a neglected area. A lack of international norms and guidance results in diverse national practices and uncertainty as to good practice to follow. We will be working with national, regional, and international experts to understand what action can be taken to address this gap.

In all of this work, ENS looks forward to maintaining its collaboration with the European Commission, the European Parliament, and other regional actors, in upholding every childā€™s right to a nationality in regional efforts to protect and promote childrenā€™s rights.

*See the European Parliament Resolution on Childrenā€™s Rights and the European Parliament Resolution on Minimum Standards for Minorities in the EU

Ā 

Related topics