Reflections from our UK childhood statelessness project as the toxic Nationality and Borders Act 2022 passes into law

Andie Lambe, Independent Consultant for ENS – Childhood Statelessness in the UK & Nina Murray, Head of Policy & Research, ENS
/ 6 mins read

To the dismay of many in the UK but especially civil society, last week, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 crossed the final line and came into force. In this editorial, we reflect on our work over the past two years on childhood statelessness in the UK and what the Act means for stateless children in the UK. In June 2020, with the support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, ENS embarked on an ‘explore and test’ project to better understand and address childhood statelessness in the UK.  The project aimed to create an evidence base, build awareness and capacity within UK civil society, and foster sustainable change.

by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash.
by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash.

Roots of the project

As is often the case, a lot has happened since we first envisioned and designed this project, not least a global pandemic! The shifting external landscape prompted continuous reflection and reprioritisation of activities and focus during the project period, also based on feedback from our UK members, which made the ‘explore and test’ approach a perfect fit for this work. The project began with a research phase, reviewing available data and undertaking a stakeholder mapping, which included identifying what work was already being done on the issue, as well as commissioning two of our members to review their legal casework with affected children, young people, and their families.

Just under a year into the project, in May 2021, the UK Government launched its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, which not only proposed to effectively tear-up many of the hard-won and internationally protected rights for refugees and migrants in the UK, but also, sought to amend the British Nationality Act 1981 (BNA) to make it harder for stateless children born in the UK to realise their right to acquire British citizenship. Our project suddenly became even more vital, as the fundamental rights of a particularly marginalised group of children born in the UK were under threat.

For what it was worth, the UK Government did undertake a consultation and ENS (and many of our members) responded. We also published a blog at the time, outlining our key concerns about the proposals, especially highlighting the lack of any evidence to support the UK Government’s stated rationale for the change to the statelessness provision in the BNA: that parents of stateless children born in the UK were deliberately deciding not to act to ensure their children acquired another nationality, so they would remain stateless and be able to register as British after five years (under Schedule 2 Paragraph 3, BNA).

Research findings

Our own research has not uncovered any evidence of parents ‘deliberately keeping their children stateless’. In fact, we found that besides more well-known stateless populations in the UK, such as Rohingya, Kuwaiti Bidoon, or Palestinian refugees, there are other children who may be stateless or at risk of statelessness, but whose nationality issues are not well known at all. This included children in care, children affected by domestic abuse or trafficking, children of parents originating from EU countries affected by Brexit, and children whose parents come from countries where discriminatory nationality laws deny women equal rights to confer their nationality, or where registration with an embassy is required but impossible in practice. This is compounded by a lack of awareness within affected communities of children’s nationality rights, with many still mistakenly believing that the UK has birth-right citizenship. As such, many children born in the UK only discover later in life, when trying to access services or travel, that they must go through a complex legal procedure to determine their nationality and acquire or confirm their British citizenship.

We set this evidence out in our Invisible Kids report, disseminated through a webinar to coincide with the publication of the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill last summer, which sadly (but perhaps unsurprisingly) ignored the loud and sustained warnings from civil society and legal experts about the dangers of what had been proposed in the New Plan for Immigration. One of our key concerns was that some of the amendments proposed in the Bill risked actually increasing childhood statelessness in the UK.

Legal & Parliamentary Advocacy

Despite extensive campaigning to stop the Bill during its passage through the UK Parliament, and cross-party opposition to many of its most problematic provisions, the Nationality and Borders Act came into force on 28 April 2022. For our part, we worked with a coalition of our members and others at the Committee Stage in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords to challenge two specific clauses (Section 1, Clauses 9 & 10) that we believe will lead to an increase in childhood statelessness and unnecessarily leave more children in limbo, exposed to the detrimental impacts of growing up without a nationality. Whilst our advocacy to stop these clauses passing into law was ultimately unsuccessful, the effort invested was certainly not wasted, as it enabled us to shine a light on childhood statelessness in the UK, with scrutiny and debates of the issue and our joint work now on public record.

In addition to the research report and parliamentary advocacy, other project outputs have included a joint submission to the UN Child Rights Committee and the Universal Periodic Review of the UK, using these key global human rights monitoring processes to highlight why childhood statelessness remains an issue in the UK and what needs to change. In response to feedback during the project period, we have also mapped existing (and past or planned) training on statelessness and children’s nationality rights to identify gaps and opportunities for future development. The mapping indicates a need for more training content for local authorities, lawyers, and community organisations on the causes, consequences, and solutions to statelessness in general as well as childhood statelessness specifically.

Community Engagement

Lastly but crucially, throughout the project, we have sought to foster and improve our links with communities affected by statelessness in the UK. Representatives of affected communities have participated in the research, advocacy, training mapping, and reflection activities. Through our members who provide direct assistance to children and families, we have also been able to share and learn from their stories and experience. Finally, in February and March 2022, we worked with the Roma Support Group and the British Rohingya Association to co-design and co-facilitate a series of workshops with affected communities, which aimed to build their knowledge and capacity to address statelessness, and, in the case of British Rohingya Association, to learn from a group of stateless young people in the UK, what it means to them to be stateless.

Next steps

As the project draws to a close and UK civil society braces itself to respond to the detrimental impact of the Nationality and Borders Act, here are our three key reflections on what needs to happen next to ensure that no stateless child is left behind:

  • Frontline child and migrant/refugee rights organisations, local authority care providers, and community support networks need tools, capacity, and, importantly, resources, to help them identify (risks of) statelessness and put clear referral routes in place to support affected children, young people and families to resolve their nationality status.
  • Regularisation and leave to remain are understandably a priority for children and their families, but we must not forget that everyone has the right to a nationality, and children in particular must be supported to resolve their statelessness and acquire British citizenship as soon as possible.
  • The lack of reliable, disaggregated data means that the true extent of childhood statelessness in the UK is still unknown. As the changes in the Nationality and Borders Act take effect, it will be absolutely vital to monitor its impact on stateless children’s ability to realise their right to British citizenship. We can only do this with better identification, better data, better access to quality specialist legal advice, and better pathways to citizenship for all children.
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