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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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]