Jean Lambert is a British Member of the European Parliament and the Green Party. She has been a tireless supporter and advocate for the plight of stateless people in Europe. We spoke about her work, the role of the European Union in eradicating statelessness and the challenges ahead.
You’ve been a leading champion for the rights of stateless people in the European Parliament for a number of years now. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen when it comes to European decision makers and making sure they are aware of the specific challenges facing stateless people?
I think a significant shift is that we have now moved on from discussion and awareness raising to concrete action – to give you an idea of what the European Parliament and EU have been doing – in November 2015 a study was published at the request of the Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee bringing together the different practices and approaches EU Member States take to prevent and end statelessness. The study includes a call for an EU Directive on statelessness determination procedures, but there is still significant debate around whether this is an EU competence. In December 2015 the European Council adopted conclusions on statelessness inviting the Commission to launch exchanges of good practices among Member States in order to reduce the number of stateless people in the EU, strengthen their protection and reduce the risk of discrimination. Although not hugely ambitious, the conclusions are a very important and significant first step in the right direction. The European Migration Network was designated in the Conclusions as the platform for the exchange of information on statelessness among EU Member States. Recently, the EMN Inform "Statelessness in the EU" was published, based on responses received from Member States on their current practice, and a conference was organised in January 2017 to take stock of collective efforts to address statelessness in the EU as well as identify what further action is required. Of course the discussion and debate is still crucial, but I am also excited and motivated that we now have some concrete initiatives off of the ground which will contribute towards much needed concrete action on the issue.
The European Parliament is currently holding intense discussions on the overhaul of the EU’s Common European Asylum System. With more than 3% of asylum applicants in the EU facing a nationality problem, what needs to be done to make sure that protection of stateless people is a part of the debate?
Although the legislation we are reviewing includes stateless people as part of its scope, I think it is true to say that specific provisions in the legislation to take account of the challenges faced by stateless people are not a significant part of the discussion – for the EP and relevant NGOs. We may have an opportunity to strengthen proposals in the Procedures Directive. Given that most European countries frequently encounter stateless people in their asylum systems, this is an issue that we as law makers, as well as the authorities implementing our response to people seeking protection on the ground, must seek to better understand and address. An issue I feel particularly concerned about, particularly with the increase in numbers of those seeking protection in the EU in recent years, is that of children born in the EU who are at risk of statelessness. Two of the top three countries of origin of those seeking sanctuary in Europe – Syria and Iraq – have statelessness challenges and nationality laws that prevent women who give birth outside the country from passing on their nationality to their children, and EU Member States do not grant nationality simply by virtue of the fact that a child is born on their territory – this toxic mix means that the number of statelessness children in the EU is set to rise, potentially dramatically. I hope we can further debate and draw attention to this challenge at the hearing in the LIBE committee on the 29th June, where the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights (TBC) will speak on addressing statelessness in a migratory context. The current context makes it more important than ever for Member States to ensure that they have functioning and efficient stateless determination procedures, and that all children have access to birth registration and a nationality - it is never in a child's best interests to be stateless.
You spoke very passionately at the ENS #LockedInLimbo conference in May about the need to protect stateless people from arbitrary detention. You’ve also endorsed the statement calling on European governments to take action to end this phenomenon. What do you see are the opportunities ahead to push for effective reform on this issue?
Detention can be particularly detrimental for stateless people, who are trapped in limbo between rejection by Europe and the lack of another country which recognises them as a national. Stateless people are particularly vulnerable to lengthy detention periods and can become effectively 'stuck' in a bureaucratic system and face long periods of detention, with potentially grave impacts on their mental health and future. A crucial key to addressing the arbitrary detention of stateless people is to ensure there are effective procedures in place for their identification, so that steps can be taken to protect them. Alternatives to detention and a thorough assessment of an individual's vulnerability are also crucial – these are issues which the Greens/EFA Group in the Parliament, in which I sit, have always pushed for in our work on relevant legislation, and we will continue to do so.
Next month, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and the Committee on Petitions (PETI) will hold a joint hearing on statelessness, a first as far as the European Parliament is concerned. The hearing has come about in part as a result of online petitions submitted by ENS (including our #StatelessKids petition with over 22,000 signatures), as well as the work of a cross-party group of MEPs who’ve been involved in looking at different aspects of how statelessness affects those living in Europe. Is this an indication that the European Parliament will play a bigger role in finding a pan-European solution to ending statelessness in the region?
I certainly hope so! It is no mean feat to get time in a committee to discuss a specific issue, particularly if there is no specific EU legislation on the topic 'on the table' at the time, which there currently isn't on statelessness – therefore the very fact the we have a hearing taking place, hosted by two committees is already an indication of the Parliament being willing to play a more significant role, and will be an important space for decision makers to better acquaint themselves with the issues and challenges at stake and forge ways forward on what further action the Parliament could take on the issue. The study commissioned by the LIBE committee in 2015 will be presented at the hearing and measures to prevent childhood statelessness, the identification and protection of stateless persons, and protecting stateless persons from arbitrary detention, will be discussed - a timely follow up to ENS's conference in Budapest in May, where they launched their new LockedInLimbo campaign. I also think the hearing is a great opportunity for the thousands of people across Europe who are concerned about statelessness to make contact with their MEPs, let them know that the hearing is happening and ask them to attend, or to send a member of their staff to report back to them – the more people who are aware of the issues at stake, the more traction we have to achieve effective action!
With everything that has happened in global politics in 2016, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges ahead for those working on statelessness and what keeps you positive?
You never fail to challenge me! It is clear that we are operating in difficult times and the current discourse and direction of travel on policies around asylum, migration, citizenship and nationality are certainly worrying. However one of the things I 'like' about working on statelessness are that it IS a solvable problem - we CAN eradicate childhood statelessness in the EU with a healthy dose of political will at all levels to make sure that all Member States have the right systems in place to identify stateless people, ensure 100% birth registration and the acquisition of a nationality immediately or soon after birth. We can put in place proper procedures for adults caught in this situation to find a 'durable solution' for them. The EU can provide advocacy in other parts of the world on statelessness. I will do everything I can during the remainder of my mandate to push to make this a reality!