Sitting on the plane home from Geneva, where I’ve been helping to teach staff at UNHCR’s headquarters about statelessness, seems the perfect opportunity to write a new blog and share a rather novel idea that actually surfaced during the workshop… going into business providing “expat nationality services”.
The offices of UNHCR, like those of any other international organisations or multinational companies, are a melting pot of people from different parts of the world, holding different nationalities. Over the course of the years that they have spent living and working abroad many have also met and married someone from a different country than their own. Regular rotation from one office – and one country – to another, adds further complexity to the family life of many, with children born in yet another location, sometimes far from either of the parents’ countries of origin. When embarking on a training about statelessness, the intricate web of ties that such international professionals have formed with a whole array of countries creates a ready interest in the issue of nationality and conseqently also the lack of it. Indeed, it is often the case that they have already, more than the average person, reflected on the question of where their nationality comes from and what it means. Moreover, a significant number of participants in such workshops have already personally encountered one type of legal anomaly in the field of nationality: dual citizenship. They themselves, their partners and/or children, will commonly have accummulated two or more nationalities thanks to the path that they have taken in life. As a result, there is a natural curiosity about the opposing anomaly of statelessness.
Given this starting point, one of the ways that I like to introduce the phenomenon of statelessness is by presenting a case which illustrates the lottery-like effect that nationality laws can sometimes have. Since each state can, in principle, set its own rules for the conferral of nationality, statelessness can arise from a straightforward and often unintended conflict between the nationality laws of different countries. Simple misfortune in the circumstances of birth (in nationality terms, that is) can leave a person with neither the nationality of their father, nor their mother nor their country of birth and thus render them stateless. For example, the father may be from a country that does not allow him to transmit his nationality if his child is born out of wedlock and the parents may indeed be unmarried; while the mother is perhaps from a country that does not allow women to pass on nationality to their children at all; and the child may be born in a country that does not recognise this fact as sufficient for the acquisition of nationality. Then, the child will be left stateless, unless the all-important safeguards that we work hard to promote are in place in one or other of the nationality laws. At the same time though, a very slight change in the circumstances of birth – parents who are married, a woman who is allowed to transmit nationality, birth within a state that does grant citizenship to everyone born on its soil – and the person can swing from being stateless, to enjoying single, dual or even multiple nationality. In other words, it can take very little for a negative conflict of laws to become a positive conflict of laws.
The fact that someone’s nationality status can balance on a knife-edge like this is fascinating, especially to people who have, themselves, had to navigate different nationality laws to discover how they or their family members might be affected. While many international professionals and expats are able to take advantage of the opportunity to collect several nationalities for themselves and their children, the reality is that the risk of statelessness also looms over them. Consider, for instance, the nationality laws that allow nationality to be withdrawn from anyone who takes up residence abroad for an extended period of time. Consider the nationality laws that require consular registration, or even return to the country, before any children born to a national abroad are able to secure their father or mother’s nationality. And consider the nationality laws that limit the transmission of nationality to children born outside the country to the first generation only, leaving the second generation in a potentially uncertain position. As mobility increases and the expat community grows worldwide, it becomes ever more important to understand the impact of these and other complexities of different state’s nationality laws, working alone or in conjunction with others.
This observation made and one or two in the room expressing concern at the precariousness of their own or their children’s nationality status, given the ins and outs of the nationality laws which apply to them, one response that I found striking was this: perhaps the highly sophisticated expat services industry should branch out into a new area? Indeed. After all, as important as it is to find the right housing, safely ship your treasured belongings, import your own car, understand a new tax system or locate a new doctor all are… some competent advice on nationality laws and procedures certainly wouldn’t go amiss, to make sure you don’t forget something vital like consular registration which could otherwise cause you or a family member to be cast adrift and join the ranks of the stateless. This may even be a money-making opportunity, using nationality expertise to advise those who can afford to outsource dealing with the issue and maybe injecting that back into projects that provide similar legal assistance to those who cannot pay for such a service. While the high-flying, professional, expat situation is an interesting one, the reality is that the situation of other migrants – those less well paid, less well educated, empowered or connected and those whose situation is all the more vulnerable because it is undocumented or irregular – poses a far greater challenge in the quest to avoid statelessness. Maybe using one to subsidise the other is an effective way forward.
Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme