Thursday, 20 November 2014

Launch of ENS Campaign - None of Europe’s children should be stateless

He has your infectious smile and your partners bright, warm eyes. He shares your jovial nature and your partner’s ease in connecting with people and making them laugh.  He is intelligent, generous, kind – and a little mischievous. You swell with pride as you watch him play thoughtfully with his toy cars, his imagination transforming your living room floor into a world of adventure. You love him in a way that you find hard to put into words and that has caught you by surprise. Life without him is now unimaginable. Yet you still catch yourself wondering if you have done the right thing. Will he blame you when he is big enough to understand? Will he forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? Every day you worry about his future. Will he be able to finish school? What happens if he’s ever seriously ill? What if his ambition is to be a lawyer or an engineer or a politician? What if he wants a family of his own? The anxiety forms a hard lump in the pit of your stomach and sometimes you have to stop watching his carefree playing because the worry rises to the surface and threatens to consume you. Your beautiful boy is just like every other kid, except for one thing. He has no nationality. He didn't ask to be different and try as you might, you and your partner were powerless to do anything. Your son will grow up stateless.

It seems an unlikely scenario and one that must surely only play out a long way away in a somehow less ‘civilised’ part of the world… but in this region too, statelessness continues to arise because European states are failing to ensure that all children born within Europe’s borders or to European citizen parents acquire a nationality. Childhood statelessness stands at odds with the right of every child to a nationality, as laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child – adopted 25-years ago today, on Universal Children’s Day. ENS is taking the occasion of this anniversary to launch its new region-wide campaign ‘None of Europe’s Children should be Stateless’. This campaign will raise awareness and promote measures aimed at ensuring that all children born in Europe or to European parents outside the region can in practice realise their right to a nationality.

Like Quis’ kids, now ages six and nine, who were born and raised in Malta, but remain stateless. As reported in the Times of Malta earlier this year, Quis himself is stateless because he is among a large group of Kurds who were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality in their home country of Syria many decades ago, so he has no nationality to offer his children. His wife Nessrin is a Syrian citizen but Syrian law does not allow women to transfer nationality so she too is helpless to provide a nationality to her children. Yes, these are children of foreign heritage and the law and policies in Syria have played a significant role in their predicament – but they are also Europe’s children, born and bred, attending school and participating in society in Malta.

Like Drita’s nine children, none of whom are recognised as citizens in their home country of Serbia, or anywhere else. Drita, a Roma woman, has only recently – and after a lengthy struggle culminating in a court procedure – acquired a birth certificate for herself. She had been living without any personal documents because the birth registry in Kosovo in which her birth had been recorded was destroyed. Before she is recognised as Serbian, however, she still needs to complete further long and uncertain procedures relating to the registration of permanent residence and determination of citizenship. Until she can win this battle for herself, she is powerless to help her children resolve their statelessness. But for Drita’s children and hundreds more like them, Serbia is the only country they know and the place they call home.  

Like Elżbieta’s 17-year old daughter, Marysia, brought home from an orphanage when she was just a toddler, but still stateless today as she stands on the cusp of adulthood. Her story was told in the Polish press last July. Marysia was abandoned at a Polish hospital, immediately after birth. All that anyone seems to know about her birth mother is that she was not from Poland – the Doctor’s wrote Romanian on her mother’s hospital record. But Marysia is not recognised by the Romanian authorities as a citizen and it took a long legal battle for Elżbieta to get even a residence permit for her daughter, even though she was born in Poland and is being raised by a Polish couple. Elżbieta’s last hope in solving her daughter’s statelessness is to wait for the outcome of an exceptional procedure through which the President may, at his discretion, award citizenship.

Like Lin’s two young children, a boy aged 4 and a newborn girl – both born in the Netherlands, both stateless. Lin was only a child herself when, at age 14, she was trafficked from China to the Netherlands. Her parents never registered her birth because of the restrictions of the one-child policy and they were hoping for a son. After being rescued from exploitation and testifying as a witness in the prosecution of her traffickers, Lin tried several times to get the Chinese authorities to confirm her nationality, but they will not recognise her as a citizen. Her children were then unable to acquire a nationality at birth. Although her son, at age 4, is now eligible for Dutch nationality under a special safeguard in the law for stateless children born in the country, the authorities have registered him as ‘nationality unknown’ and this is preventing him from invoking the special provision that is designed to protect him from growing up without a nationality.

None of these parents chose for their children to be stateless – in fact they have been fighting to do everything that is within their power to secure a nationality for them, it was simply beyond their reach. They all fear for what a life of statelessness could mean for their children: hardship, questions, suspicion, denied opportunities, unfulfilled potential, a sense of never quite belonging. No parent should have to experience this anguish. No child needs to be stateless. There are a number of simple measures that governments can be take in order to ensure that children who would otherwise be stateless and who have a clear connection to the country, by birth or parentage, are not left without  a nationality. The new ENS campaign launched today seeks to promote these measures and to raise awareness of the need to tackle childhood statelessness so that we can put a halt to the spread of statelessness in the region. If we can achieve this, we will have taken the first critical step towards ending statelessness in Europe.    

Earlier this year, ENS released a report on Childhood statelessness in Europe: Issues, gaps and good practices. This report concluded that although most of Europe’s nationality laws notionally include safeguards to protect against the risk of statelessness, in reality children continue to be born stateless across the region. ENS is committed to helping to change this picture by: raising awareness on the importance of and measures to prevent childhood statelessness, working with the child rights community to foster a more active engagement on the issue of children’s right to a nationality and promote relevant international standards, conducting further research in order to fully identify what gaps exist in law, policy and practice and developing a better understanding of how problematic birth registration procedures are connected to issues of childhood statelessness. A special feature of this campaign will be an outreach programme to schools and youth to help to raise the profile of the issue and to engage youngsters in creating a platform for change.

Over the coming months, ENS will focus on the research dimension of its campaign work. A number of country studies will be carried out to explore how, when and why children are being left without a nationality and what can be done to address this. ENS will also promote research into cross-cutting issues that affect the problem of childhood statelessness across the region. To this end, ENS will convene a regional conference on the children’s right to a nationality in Europe in June 2015 to discuss the challenges and opportunities around ending childhood statelessness. This will provide a venue for the discussion of ENS’ own research findings, but also for the presentation of relevant research conducted by scholars, NGOs and other experts (a call for presenters with full details will be issued early in 2015). The conference will also be the launch-pad from which ENS will embark on broader and more public-facing campaign activities as part of the second phase of its campaign aimed at strengthening frameworks for the prevention of statelessness among Europe’s children.
If you would like to learn more about the ENS campaign ‘None of Europe’s Children should be Stateless’ and how you can get involved, please email You can also write to this address to be added to the mailing list for updates about campaign activities and the forthcoming conference.

Laura van Waas, Campaign Consultant and member of the ENS Advisory Committee; Senior Researcher and Manager of the Statelessness Programme

[This blog first appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness]

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why a campaign to end statelessness matters

Dear friends and colleagues,
It is not easy to imagine what life would be like if you did not hold any nationality. In fact, it is not easy to even imagine this even being possible. Everyone has a birthplace, a family, a home, a community: surely everyone has a nationality? Sadly, no. Millions of people around the world are stateless. They are perpetual foreigners, disenfranchised, not recognised as or able to exercise the rights of citizens in any country. This is a serious problem – for those affected, but also for those of us who do enjoy a nationality and can make a difference, as people who care about and want our children to grow up in a free, fair, safe and democratic world.
We welcome, admire and support the ambitious campaign launched today by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to end statelessness by 2024. Statelessness fundamentally and unequivocally deserves more attention than it has received to date and the time has come for it to take its rightful place amongst other pressing and worrying issues that are already vying for international attention. We are not powerless in the face of statelessness. Citizenship is our own modern-day creation and we set the rules. Bad laws can be amended. Discriminatory policies can be repealed. We believe that with greater awareness of the issue, stronger collaboration and a firm commitment to act, statelessness can be solved. Indeed, we not only believe that statelessness can be tackled, we believe that it must. Statelessness matters, to all of us, for many reasons. Here are just some of them…

If people matter…
Stateless persons are among the world’s most vulnerable. They are seen and treated as foreigners by every country in the world, including the country in which they were born, the country of their ancestors, the country of their residence, the country they happen to find themselves in today and any country they may find themselves expelled to tomorrow. Stateless persons face an extreme form of exclusion that impacts their sense of dignity and identity, as well as their ability to do all sorts of everyday things that most of us take for granted, like go to school, get a job, be treated by a doctor, get married or travel. So, if people matter, statelessness matters.

If children matter…
Many of the world’s stateless persons are children. In fact, in every region of the world, children continue to be born into statelessness and grow up never knowing the protection and recognition that comes with a nationality. Some children inherit their statelessness from stateless parents, creating an intergenerational problem. Others aren’t able to acquire their parents’ or any other nationality due to discriminatory laws and policies or the failure of governments to implement simple legal safeguards that prevent childhood statelessness. Without a nationality, children can have difficulty exercising their rights, become outcasts in their own country, struggle to feel like they belong and grow up to be disenfranchised and excluded adults. So, if children matter, statelessness matters.

If human rights matter…
The contemporary human rights framework is premised on notions of equality, liberty, dignity and universality: we all hold basic rights because we are human beings. But the human rights system also recognises that states may reserve some rights for their citizens, such as the right to vote or be elected, placing these out of reach for stateless people. And in practice, statelessness is a proven barrier to the exercise a wide range of other rights. So the very universality of human right rests on the premise that everyone enjoys a nationality – laid down, for that reason, as a right in most major human rights instruments. Until statelessness is eradicated, the fundamental aspiration of universal human rights remains just that, an aspiration. So, if human rights matter, statelessness matters.

If development matters…
Difficulties accessing education and employment; restricted property rights; lack of opportunities to own or register a business; limited access to a bank account or a loan; and, in some cases, the threat of extortion, detention or expulsion; these factors can trap stateless persons in poverty and make it extremely challenging for them to improve their circumstances. Where statelessness affects whole communities over several successive generations – as it often sadly does – such communities can be neglected by development actors and processes. Statelessness means a waste, of individual potential, of human capital and of development opportunities. So, if development matters, statelessness matters.

If democracy matters…
Nationality is the gateway to political participation. Stateless persons have no right to vote, stand for election or effect change through regular political channels. Their statelessness suppresses their voices and renders their opinions obsolete. In countries with large stateless populations, whole sectors of the constituency are disenfranchised. Elsewhere, statelessness is a tool in the arsenal of those who would seek to manipulate the democratic process, with deprivation of nationality a means of silencing the opposition. To ensure a level and inclusive democratic playing field, stateless persons must also be heard. So, if democracy matters, statelessness matters.

If addressing displacement matters…
Statelessness is a recognised root cause of forced displacement, with stateless persons fleeing their homes and often countries in order to find protection elsewhere. Preventing cases of statelessness is vital for the prevention of refugee flows – a link that has been a key motivation for UNHCR to further operationalise its statelessness mandate and now call to end statelessness. Addressing nationality disputes and tackling statelessness where it arises can also be a key tool in resolving existing refugee situations because it can pave the way for successful voluntary repatriation and reintegration. So, if addressing displacement matters, statelessness matters.

If peace and security matter…
The vulnerability, exclusion, despair, frustration and sometimes persecution experienced by stateless persons can spark other problems. Casting a group as “others” or “outsiders” by denying them access to nationality – in spite of clear and lasting ties to the country – can contribute to attitudes of suspicion and discrimination. This can cause a dangerous build-up of tension within and between communities that may lead to conflict. Disputes surrounding nationality, membership, belonging and entitlement can also hamper peace-building efforts. So, if peace and security matter, statelessness matters.

If size matters…
Many millions of people are affected by statelessness around the world today. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million stateless persons under its mandate and if stateless refugees and stateless Palestinians under UN Relief and Works Agency mandate are added to this tally, the figure is higher still. This means that there are enough stateless persons to create a medium-sized country (although this is not suggested as a solution). Moreover, these numbers do not include the many more who feel the impact of statelessness, for instance because a close family member lacks any nationality. So, if size matters, statelessness matters.

What can you do?
The launch of the campaign led by the UNHCR to end statelessness by 2024 is a great opportunity to reach out to all individuals, communities and organisations, who have it within their capacity to help address statelessness. Please take a moment to reflect on statelessness and its many impacts. Is it relevant to your field of work? Does it affect people in your country? Do people near you experience the vulnerability and exclusion of statelessness?
Sign up to UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign to end statelessness: Start a conversation, discuss the issue, raise awareness and try to use your position and expertise to help. Share this note on ‘Why Statelessness Matters’ with people in your network; watch and share this short video too. If you would like to learn more about statelessness, if you want to do something but are not sure what, or if you are looking for partners to collaborate with, get in touch with us and we will try to help.  If you think your organisation can better integrate statelessness into its work but would like to brainstorm ideas to make this happen, we will support you. If you want to further study the link between your field of expertise and statelessness, we welcome your plans. Together, we can end statelessness. We can also, in the interim, protect and include the stateless. This issue matters.

Amal de Chickera, Laura van Waas and Zahra Albarazi – Founders of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion is a newly established, independent non-profit organisation dedicated to leading an integrated, inter-disciplinary response to the injustice of statelessness and exclusion. In December 2014, the Institute will release its first publication, “The World’s Stateless”, assessing the challenge of ending statelessness by 2024 by taking a closer look at what we know (and what we don’t know) about who is stateless and where. To find out more or support the Institute’s work, please visit or contact us at