Three years on, ENS #StatelessnessINDEX points to slow and fragile progress towards ending statelessness in Europe

Nina Murray - Head of Policy & Research, European Network on Statelessness
/ 7 mins read

Today we are launching the annual update of our Statelessness Index, which now assesses and compares 27 European countries, examining how they protect stateless people on their territory and what they are doing to prevent and reduce statelessness. Our new analysis shows that countries urgently need to address the reality on the ground and match their international commitments with action. Progress made over the last three years is fragile at best and Europe is falling behind agreed timeframes to address the issue.

A presentation of the StatelessnessINDEX
With 19,000 users, the Statelessness Index is a critical, live tool for monitoring progress and holding governments to account.

Each year, as well as adding new country profiles to the Index, we work with our country partners to review and update the detailed research that is the backbone of our Index analysis. It is a team effort with national and regional experts carefully checking for new statistics, amendments to law and policy, government commitments, and evidence of emerging trends, as well as new norms and good practices against which to benchmark performance. All of this makes the Statelessness Index a critical, live tool for monitoring progress and holding governments to account when they don’t live up to their commitments.

Reflecting on progress: empty promises?

Today is an opportunity to reflect on the last three years since the Index was launched and provide a ‘state-of-play’ assessment of progress. So, what has changed in the last few years and where are the remaining sticking points? To be honest, reviewing the data has been a sobering exercise. Clear protection gaps and rights violations remain unaddressed. Though countries like Albania and Ukraine have made progress in the last year, others, like the Netherlands, where reform has been promised for several years, remain stuck in a gridlock. In some, like Bulgaria, Moldova, and Greece, we’ve seen backsliding, with recent measures actively restricting the rights of stateless people or safeguards to prevent statelessness. Above all, too many States are yet to take any action at all to fulfil their obligations under the international conventions they have signed up to.

It is telling indeed that the most positive ‘scores’ in the Index are found in the theme that assesses whether States are party to relevant human rights treaties. Europe has a strong tradition of accession to international treaties - all but two Index countries (Cyprus and Poland) are party to the 1954 Convention and all but seven are also party to the 1961 Convention (Cyprus, France, Greece, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, and Switzerland, are the seven). Although accession to the two most relevant Council of Europe conventions is more mixed, it’s important to remember that all European countries have specific obligations under international human rights law to uphold the right to a nationality in a non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory way. Yet despite these obligations on paper, their implementation is much weaker across the board, revealing that many European countries are merely paying lip service to their image as a bulwark against human rights abuses.

The Index is a tool to identify these challenges and provides a clear roadmap for addressing them. Although there are several areas where standards are being neglected, there are four that stand out as we launch this year’s update.

Four key challenges

1. Fundamental protection gaps remain

Only 10 of the 27 Index countries have procedures (SDPs) in place to determine who is stateless on their territory and grant them the rights and protection they are due under the 1954 Convention. The other 17 have only limited - if any - means of identifying who is owed specific obligations under international law. This is simply not good enough. It means that in most European countries, nearly 70 years on from the adoption of the 1954 Convention, stateless people face immense hurdles to accessing even the most basic rights that we all take for granted. Model legislation, detailed guidance, and good practice examples are widely available. Why then, is it taking so long for States to address this fundamental gap? Positively, Ukraine and Bulgaria have introduced new statelessness determination procedures in recent years (and others are in the pipeline). However, whilst the new Ukrainian procedure looks to be mostly in line with good practice, just last week, further restrictions to undermine access to protection for stateless people in Bulgaria came into force. We must hold governments to account where protection gaps remain, especially where they backtrack on progress; and prioritise urgent reform in this area.

2. Stateless people are invisible in immigration detention

No country in the Index is assessed positively across the detention theme. Data on stateless people in immigration detention is extremely patchy, so we don’t even know how many are affected. What is clear though is that legal safeguards to prevent their arbitrary detention are inadequate. Only a handful of countries require a country of removal to be identified prior to detaining someone. Statelessness is not considered a factor increasing vulnerability and it is rarely considered juridically relevant in decisions to detain. There are well-documented concerns about increasing recourse to immigration detention in Europe, and stateless people (among others) are undoubtedly caught up in this trend. Evidence of expanding grounds for detention has emerged in recent Index updates for Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Malta, with COVID-19 restrictions in Bulgaria and Italy making access to effective remedies extremely difficult in 2020. The specific circumstances of stateless people must be more proactively addressed when assuring the rights of people subject to immigration detention in Europe.

3. Children are continuing to grow up stateless

In 2015, ENS published a report revealing that half of European countries were not meeting their obligations to ensure all children born on their territory acquire a nationality. Nearly six years on, the Index shows that only Norway and Albania have introduced changes to tip this balance very slightly towards the positive. Meanwhile, almost half of European countries still permit children to be born stateless on their territory by law. Governments can no longer plead ignorance on this issue. The evidence is clear, and awareness has undoubtedly grown since our #StatelessKids campaign and the efforts of our members and UNHCR. What is more, the Index shows that even where States do have safeguards in place, these are not always implemented as intended. In Croatia and Malta, existing safeguards appear not to be applied. In Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Serbia, safeguards that should be automatic, require children to prove their statelessness. Switzerland and Cyprus have no safeguard at all. Moldova even lowered its safeguard in 2018, restricting its application to children with a legally residing parent. This is not to mention the numerous countries where barriers to birth registration and a lack of mechanisms to determine whether a child would otherwise be stateless exacerbate the problem. All of this means that States are complicit in permitting children to grow up stateless in Europe. It is incumbent upon them to fix these gaps urgently.

4. Politics are getting in the way of fundamental rights

If we are to end statelessness - and UNHCR has set ambitious targets for this globally by 2024 - there needs to be a focus on reduction measures. The only way to resolve a person’s statelessness is for them to acquire a nationality. State parties to the 1954 Convention are required, as far as possible, to facilitate naturalisation for stateless people on their territory. Yet the Index shows the opposite. There are significant barriers to naturalisation in many countries, ranging from prohibitively high fees in the UK to lengthy residence requirements in Spain, inflexible documentation requirements in the Netherlands, discretionary ‘national interest’ requirements in Hungary, and ‘good character’ requirements in many others. In some countries, the procedure is facilitated to some extent in line with refugees, but in others there are no favourable provisions for stateless people even where there are for other groups. This is purely a question of political will and change in this area could quickly and dramatically reduce statelessness in a migratory context in Europe.

The other crucial aspect to reduction is how States are progressing towards reducing their in situ stateless populations. This is not - and should not be - about granting protection and providing for discretionary naturalisation. It is about measures to identify and eliminate discriminatory laws, policies, and practices that perpetuate intergenerational (risk of) statelessness affecting minoritized and marginalised populations. It is about confirming and issuing proof of nationality to those who lack it. In Europe, this primarily means targeted measures to address the protracted statelessness of groups such as ethnic Russians in the Baltic States and Roma in the Western Balkans and countries of the former Soviet Union. As the Index highlights, some progress has been made including through legislative reform in Latvia, Albania, and North Macedonia. But this progress is fragile. Solutions tend to be partial or short-term, facilitating access to some rights for some people without addressing equal citizenship, and therefore failing to tackle the root cause of the problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us starkly why we need to find ways to put politics aside and guarantee the right to a nationality for every person who is stateless or at risk of statelessness in Europe.

Focusing on the end goal

The goal to end statelessness should be one we can all get behind. Stateless people demand and deserve that we redouble our collective and participatory efforts to achieve this goal working with and alongside them. The Index provides us with the tools and evidence to advocate for change where it is most needed. States lagging behind can and must now urgently focus on some of the initial progress made to date and take action to put their international commitments into practice.

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