Saskia Bricmont is a Greens/EFA Member of the European Parliament. She was elected in 2019 and is a member of the influential Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee and is the Co-Chair of the Intergroup on Children’s Rights. We spoke about her work, the role of the European Union in ending statelessness and the challenges ahead.
Since being elected as a member of European Parliament in 2019, you have championed children’s rights and ensuring they are at the top of the political agenda. What motivates this interest and why is it so important to you?
I have always been guided in my work by the ideals of equality and solidarity, including in my previous roles as advisor in the Belgian federal Parliament, the Belgian Green Party, and as a local councillor in Ath, Belgium. When I became an MEP in 2019, I wanted to act as a relay for all those who work daily for the climate, social justice, democracy and human rights. This of course includes children’s rights and ensuring a brighter future for younger generations, and I am motivated in my work as an MEP to make children’s rights a reality rather than a principle. It is also why I am a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, where I am committed to defending an open society where fundamental rights and freedoms are non-negotiable.
Could you tell us about the work of the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights and how childhood statelessness relates to the group's agenda?
Although children are affected by all legislation and policy adopted in the European Parliament, no Parliamentary committee has specific responsibility for children. The Child Rights Intergroup was founded in 2014 and is a permanent body responsible for promoting children’s rights across all European Parliament policies and legislation. It is the first group in the Parliament, with a cross-party, cross-national representation of committed MEPs, that mainstreams children’s rights, assesses and influences legislative and non-legislative work on children and makes sure that children’s rights are on top of the EU agenda, working together with child-focused organisations.
The Intergroup is therefore fully committed to promoting and protecting the right of every child to a nationality, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, across relevant European Parliament law and policy. As your readers will know, children are continuing to be born stateless in Europe because of a lack of legal safeguards to prevent statelessness and persisting barriers to birth registration. It is never in the best interest of the child to be stateless, and our aim as an Intergroup is to ensure that the best interest of the child is reflected in both internal and external EU action. That is why we have been working closely with ENS to raise awareness about this very important issue and to galvanise action at the European level to eradicate childhood statelessness.
You spoke at the ENS and Intergroup on Children’s Rights joint webinar in May about the role of the EU in galvanising action to address barriers to birth registration and prevent childhood statelessness. What do you see are the opportunities ahead to push for effective reform on the issue?
The European Parliament has already committed to ending statelessness and to complying with our international obligations to protect the rights of children. For example, the November 2019 European Parliament Resolution on children’s rights marking the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explicitly calls for the promotion of universal access to birth registration and the child’s right to acquire a nationality, with a view to ending the risk of statelessness. This commitment alone is not enough, and we need concrete action at regional level and among Member States to end childhood statelessness. Several EU legislative and policy initiatives provide opportunities to push for the action that is needed.
First of all, the new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child being developed by the European Commission is currently in the consultation stage and is due to be drafted and adopted in early 2021. The Commission is aiming for a comprehensive strategy that focuses on the rights of the most vulnerable children, now we have to make sure it will take a global approach which includes action on statelessness.
In particular, the strategy needs to focus on better identification and recording of statelessness (or risks of statelessness) among children and on developing common, harmonised European standards for this, as well as promoting and ensuring universal access to birth registration and certification both with the EU and third countries. It should also promote measures among Member States to introduce legal safeguards in nationality laws to prevent childhood statelessness, as well as the introduction of child rights-based statelessness determination procedures among Member States.
It was welcome to see the new EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation, launched in October, explicitly call for stateless Roma and those who face barriers to accessing civil documentation to be included in national action plans, and for States to end statelessness among Roma by ensuring universal access to birth registration and identity documents. These commitments made in the framework are a positive step towards preventing statelessness among Romani children, and the opportunity is now in the implementation of the framework. We need to make sure we work together at regional level and with Member States to go beyond quick fix solutions and address the systemic gaps in law and policy that meant Romani children continue to be born stateless.
There are also opportunities through the EU’s development and humanitarian aid and its external action to strengthen civil registration systems and access to birth registration as a key way of preventing childhood statelessness.
The EU Pact on Asylum and Migration published in September outlines the EU’s new approach to migration. In your view, what are the potential impacts of the new Pact on the rights of children in migration, including stateless children?
Before its publication, the EU Pact on Asylum and Migration presented an opportunity to reform the European asylum system and include statelessness within Europe’s migration and refugee response efforts. Whilst there are some protections relating to children’s rights in the new Pact, including the recognition that unaccompanied children should be provided with guardians and legal assistance, the Pact focuses on border procedures that will place more burden on border States, and raises fundamental rights concerns.
I am very concerned about the impact of detention on children. The proposed model of processing asylum requests at the border is likely to increase the numbers of people held in detention-like conditions for longer periods of time. Although the European Parliament has always taken a strong stance on preventing the detention of migrant children and, according to the Pact, children under the age of 12 and unaccompanied minors are exempt from border procedures, this still leaves children over the age of 12 at risk of being held in detention-like conditions. This of course has implications for stateless children over the age of 12 if their statelessness is not adequately identified in various pre-screening and border procedures outlined in the Pact. No child should be detained, including where they are stateless and have no country to which they can be returned.
Member States now need to show solidarity both with the Member States at the EU’s borders and with migrants and refugees, to ensure fair relocation and to prevent the violation of children’s fundamental rights in the Pact’s implementation. Work being done by ENS on this and other issues faced by stateless children is really important in helping to raise awareness and hold governments to account, and here at the Intergroup we look forward to continuing our strong collaboration together.
Coronavirus has completely disrupted everything in 2020. Adapting to the new normal, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges ahead for those working on children's rights and what keeps you positive?
The Coronavirus pandemic has put many child rights issues at stake and is disproportionately impacting on some groups of children, such as those living in poverty, refugee children, homeless children, undocumented and stateless children. It has made the need to address statelessness even more urgent, because we know that being stateless makes it even more difficult to access basic needs and rights, including the right to health, and getting assistance when it comes to food, accommodation and access to different services. That is why we need to explicitly address statelessness in the pandemic recovery plans and in discussions about protecting particularly vulnerable groups during this difficult time, including where we are talking about children and their rights. Recognising challenges ahead are important. Nevertheless, seeing so many people, children and youth, and NGOs mobilised for a better future keeps me positive about the changes we can bring together.