Seeking a place to belong: addressing statelessness among refugee children in Europe

Patrícia Cabral, Legal Policy Coordinator, ENS and Nina Murray, Head of Policy & Research, ENS
/ 7 mins read

As part of our Stateless Journeys project, ENS has been working with our members in five European countries to address cases of statelessness among children born to asylum seekers. All families involved in the project were provided with legal assistance to help the children obtain a nationality as part of a new approach to help tackle and prevent childhood statelessness. This included providing a platform for children, young people and their parents to tell their stories, give their views on what needs to change and involving them in strategic decisions regarding the resolution of their case.


Today we're launching a report and a film documenting two years of legal casework involved in the project and the experiences of lawyers and families. The report details the myriad causes of statelessness among children living in different countries and the complex legal casework required to realise every child’s right to a nationality.

The report includes the stories of 23 children from different backgrounds and whose risk of statelessness stems from a wide range of circumstances. Many were born in the country where the research took place. Others were born in transit or in their parent’s country of origin. They include unaccompanied children and children living with parents, children granted international protection and those with insecure status.

All children were supported by one of ENS’s member organisations providing legal assistance: Tirana Legal Aid Society (TLAS) in Albania, Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) to Bulgaria, Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU) in the Czech Republic, Fundación Cepaim in Spain, and Right to Protection (R2P) in Ukraine.

What puts a child at risk of statelessness?

Rita, Adnan and Asma* belong to ethnic groups known to face significant risks of statelessness. Rita’s parents are Kosovar. She is at risk of statelessness because her family doesn’t have a secure residence status, has difficulties with their documentation, and a family history of displacement in a region affected by State succession. Adnan’s parents are Palestinian. He inherited his statelessness from his parents and then struggled to acquire Bulgarian nationality despite existing legal safeguards, after the authorities failed to recognise that he had been born stateless in Bulgaria. Asma’s mother is Eritrean and she was born in Ukraine while her mother sought asylum. Due to legal and practical barriers, she cannot acquire Eritrean nationality from her mother and her father is absent, so Asma would be stateless unless she acquires Ukrainian nationality.

For other children, like Mia and Anna, their statelessness arose from particular individual circumstances, sometimes as a result of their displacement. Mia’s parents could not pass on their nationalities, because their countries of origin required them to register her birth with the very authorities from whom they fled. Anna’s mother gave birth to her in a country she passed through, without any documents of her own, and then left without any documentary proof of Anna’s birth. Later no country would recognise them as its nationals.

Other cases covered in the research illustrate some of the myriad causes of statelessness among refugee children, including inherited statelessness, discrimination against minorities, recent histories of conflict, State succession, gaps in the nationality laws, issues with documentation or birth registration, situations of domestic abuse, and alleged national security concerns in relation to children born in conflict zones.

There is more than one way to approach individual cases

Over the course of the project, ENS members worked with families to document which legal strategies worked to resolve the statelessness issues they faced, and which did not. The approaches employed differed across countries and cases. In Albania, for example, TLAS supported Rita’s parents in meeting with the authorities and submitting administrative and then civil court proceedings. This helped the family to correct the names and birth dates recorded in the documents and regularise the family’s residence status. Ultimately, this allowed all family members to acquire and confirm citizenship.

In the Czech Republic lack of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure remains one of the key systemic barriers. This means that identifying and determining statelessness requires expert advice and advocacy. The lawyers at OPU first sought regularisation or citizenship for the families through administrative routes, before considering pursuing solutions through the courts, because administrative procedures are often too complex and lengthy. Mia’s family experienced such frustrating delays, and although Mia and her mother were eventually granted subsidiary protection, Mia’s statelessness remains unresolved.

In Spain, lawyers and reception support at Fundación Cepaim worked with families to resolve the children’s cases through the relevant administrative procedures. This included accompanying families to civil registry offices, or seeking information from authorities abroad. Other approaches included advocating with competent authorities to speed up delayed procedures, and supported families to explore their options and gather necessary evidence and documents.

R2P, our member in Ukraine, took on administrative and court proceedings and submitted petitions to the ombudsperson to advocate on a range of issues related with the implementation of the law. Across all countries, where partners were successful in resolving the children’s statelessness, this required complex legal casework and support coordinated by expert lawyers, with the input of a range of different agencies and actors.

Involving children and families in strategic decisions

The variety of backgrounds and situations of the affected children and families highlight the need for response actors to take an intersectional approach to identifying and responding to statelessness and to be alert to potential risks of statelessness in different circumstances. Two key systemic issues emerged from the research. On the one hand, the research identified failures in the legal frameworks and/or implementation of safeguards in nationality laws that are supposed to prevent statelessness at birth, showing how much work remains to be done across Europe to fully implement States’ obligations under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. On the other hand, in many cases, key factors contributing to children’s statelessness were the lack of mechanisms or capacity to identify and determine statelessness, including dedicated statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) that are fair, efficient, and easily accessible.

The research reveals areas of good practice that could be extended to other countries. In one case in Spain, the automatic safeguard in Spanish nationality law for a child born stateless in the country to acquire nationality was correctly applied by the civil registry office in Toledo, despite the mother’s insecure residence status at the time. A first instance court also recently set out a ground-breaking precedent, ruling that a child born in transit should have their birth registered in Spain, which may provide a helpful precedent for other cases in Spain and across Europe. In three cases in Albania, court procedures eventually resolved issues with parents and/or children’s lack of documentation and the children’s Albanian nationality was confirmed.

This project has sought to provide a platform for children affected by statelessness and their families to tell their stories and give their views on what needs to change. This was done through encouraging a participatory approach to casework and involving children and families in strategic decisions regarding the resolution of their case. This approach works, as shown by the positive outcomes in many of the cases. The tireless and often ground-breaking work of our members across Europe is vital in supporting children and families in very challenging circumstances, who reported feeling heard, supported, and informed about their cases, even where systemic or other external factors affected or delayed positive outcomes. In addition to the report, affected families and their lawyers have worked with ENS to produce a short film describing their experiences: watch the film here

Drawing on the research process and findings, we make the following recommendations:

  • States should address gaps in safeguards in nationality law, policy and practice to ensure every child acquires a nationality as soon as possible after birth
  • States should introduce effective SDPs in line with good practice and ensure these are accessible and that applicants’ rights are assured
  • States must pay special attention to the right to a nationality and the best interests of children of refugees born in exile who are unable to acquire proof of birth registration and/or nationality due to their parents’ status as asylum seekers or refugees (including by registering births of children who were born in transit, and granting nationality to children who cannot register with a parent’s embassy of nationality)
  • NGOs and legal aid providers should invest in and develop more participatory methodologies to casework
  • Donors should resource and foster the expertise required to enable organisations to invest time and capacity in resolving complex cases of children affected by statelessness.


We will be working to address some of the issues raised in this report through our #StatelessJourneys campaign, which we will launch at an event in Brussels on 27 Oct (registration details here and livestreaming details to follow for those who can’t make it in person). Watch this space for more information about the campaign!


* The names of children mentioned in the blog have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Related topics