Citizenship is the “right to have rights”. Without citizenship, one lacks not only political rights, but often social and economic rights as well. On a symbolic level, citizenship implies being a full member of a national community, and even further, of humanity.
Hundreds of thousands of persons in Europe do not have citizenship of any state. Statelessness is not disappearing with time, but being transmitted over generations. Governments should act more vigorously to break this cycle by targeting measures to end statelessness, especially among children.
The best interest of the child is to have citizenship
There should be no stateless children in Europe. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every Council of Europe member state, provides that all children have a right to a nationality. The Convention’s overarching principle is that “In all actions concerning children […] the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” It is clearly in the best interest of the child to have citizenship from birth.
While children are vulnerable, the risk of statelessness is greatest among the poorest and most excluded – minorities, the displaced, refugees, orphans, and the illiterate. Statelessness increases the vulnerability of children to serious human rights violations, such as trafficking, labour and sexual exploitation, as well as illegal adoption. This means that stateless children often face multiple, mutually reinforcing forms of marginalization.
Stateless children can be found all over Europe
The origins of statelessness in Europe are diverse. In some cases, statelessness derives from migration and conflicting nationality legislation. In others, it is a consequence of state succession or state restoration. Many Roma face obstacles in proving or acquiring a nationality due to a lack of personal identity documents, especially birth certificates.
While data broken down by age are rare, UNHCR estimates that the successor states of the former Yugoslavia have about 22,000 stateless persons. Another 22,000 to 50,000 persons in these countries are at risk of statelessness, which often means they lack identity documents. Though some are from other former Yugoslav republics, most are local Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. Over the last 20 years NGOs estimate that about 15,000 stateless Roma from former Yugoslavia settled in Italy, where they do not possess citizenship of Italy or any other state.
Another significant population of stateless children lives in Latvia and Estonia. Legislation in Latvia grants a special status to 304,000 “non-citizens” while Estonia has some 92,000 “aliens” or “persons of undetermined citizenship”. Among them, at the end of 2011, there were about 1,500 stateless children under the age of 15 in Estonia and approximately 9,000 in Latvia. While parents have the right to register these children as citizens, many do not, either because they are unaware of this opportunity or are so alienated that they opt to leave their children stateless. The Estonian and Latvian governments have allowed this situation to persist, permitting parents to choose a status that is not in the best interests of the child.
Two other European countries with a significant number of stateless persons are Russia and Ukraine, where the primary risk groups include Roma and persons belonging to minorities deported under Stalin. A recent census put the number of self-identified stateless persons in the Russian Federation at 178,000. In Ukraine, the figure is believed to be around 40,000, which includes almost 7,000 formerly deported persons who returned to Crimea.
What governments should do
States should reach out to vulnerable groups, such as the Roma, and ensure that all children are registered in birth registry books immediately after their birth. States should grant citizenship automatically at birth to children born in their territory who would otherwise be stateless and not permit parents to choose an option that is clearly not in the child’s interest. States should also establish effective and accessible administrative procedures for all persons to acquire nationality, prioritising access for children and their guardians. NGOs and bar associations that provide counselling and free legal aid may play a key role in these processes.
Effective policy must be based on reliable data. States should collect disaggregated statelessness data on a regular basis. They should also cooperate more effectively in order to solve cases of statelessness in regions affected by state succession, such as the former Yugoslavia, where persons need to access documents from different countries in order to establish their nationality. Finally, states should accede to the relevant international conventions on statelessness (the 1954 and 1961 UN Conventions and the 1997 and 2006 Council of Europe Conventions).
Governments should stop foisting the blame on history, other states or on “irresponsible parents,” but rather take the initiative to address statelessness and prioritise the best interests of the child.