Birth registration is an important tool to prevent statelessness

Ms Inge Sturkenboom has been working with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Europe since 2012 as a Protection Officer working on statelessness in the region. She wanted to assist refugees and stateless persons who cannot count on the protection of their home country. In the following interview she explains how statelessness as a global issue can be solved.

At the recent European migration network (EMN) educational seminar in Bratislava you led the presentation on statelessness. What does it mean to be stateless?

Without a nationality, stateless persons people face difficulties enjoying rights and services that you and I take for granted. Children may not be able to go to school or sit for exams. As a stateless person you may not be able to get a job, see a doctor, own property or get married. Even in Europe, stateless people have a hard time enjoying their basic rights. For these reasons, stateless people often lead a life in the margins of society.

To imagine the entire issue with statelessness phenomena: could you mention a particular personal story of your clients / stateless people you are trying to help (advocate to end their statelessness)?

One story that comes to mind is that of 29 year old Sutki whom I recently met at his home he shares with his wife, their daughter and his mother-in-law. He became stateless following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. He never left the country that he was born in and yet he has been treated like an unwelcome foreigner. After a tough life growing up in institutions and on the streets he found stability with his young family. His main concern now is that he will pass his statelessness onto his daughter. I was glad to learn that with the help of UNHCR and our partner, it seems like a solution to his statelessness is in sight. Like Sutki there are many other stateless people who made to feel like they don’t belong in the country they have called home all their lives.

At the EMN edu-seminar you have mentioned that forced displacement is considered as a cause and also consequence of statelessness. What are the reasons / causes of statelessness?

When stateless persons people face systematic discrimination and violations of their human rights because of their lack of nationality, they may have to leave their country of origin and seek protection elsewhere. Statelessness can therefore be a cause of forced displacement. There are a number of causes of statelessness. An important cause is discrimination based on ethnicity, race, or other grounds, which can be behind the deprivation or denial of nationality to a person or a group of people, rendering them stateless. People may also be left without a nationality after the dissolution of a State, falling between the cracks of the nationality laws of the new States. In Europe, there was a considerable risk of statelessness after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and of Czechoslovakia. While most people affected did acquire a new nationality, some did not and remain stateless until today.

Slovakia is also post-communist country. How the statelessness is visible here?

There is little up to date information available on the number of people affected by statelessness in Slovakia. The Statistical Office of Slovakia reported that in the 2011 Population and Housing Census 1,523 persons had declared being stateless. However, these data cannot be verified as no effective mechanism is in place for the identification of stateless persons. As the last census took place 5 years ago, the situation may be different now.

How can a person be born without nationality?

Stateless parents may pass on their statelessness to their children. Another situation that leads to a child being born without a nationality is when the mother of that child cannot transfer her nationality and there is no father who is willing and able to transfer a nationality either. Gender discrimination in nationality laws that do not grant equal rights to women to transfer their nationality to their children persists in 25 countries around the world. These include countries of origin of many of the refugees who arrived in Europe, like Syria and Iraq.

Displacement increases the risk of statelessness. People who are displaced have a harder time obtaining identity documents and birth certificates proving their legal identity and their link to a country that may consider them as a national. Their children born abroad may need to fulfill additional requirements to obtain a nationality at birth. Also, some countries no longer consider people as their nationals after they spend a certain period in exile.

What about fleeing people from Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa – coming to Europe across the Mediterranean sea? Where do newborn children “on their way” belong to?

When a child is born in exile, on the way to Europe, he or she should be registered immediately after birth. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires this. It is important to know that birth registration does not mean that the child acquires the nationality of the country of birth. Rather, it documents where a child was born and who the child’s parents are. These are key pieces of information needed to establish which country’s nationality a child can acquire. That is why birth registration is an important tool to prevent statelessness.

In which region is the procedure of birth registration well designed?

Birth registration rates in Europe are very high and procedures well designed. But we do sometimes hear of children of refugee and migrants whose births are not registered because their parents are being asked for identity or marriage documents that they do not have. We need to make sure all children born in Europe are registered at birth, with no exception, and regardless of their parents’ ethnicity, legal status or documentation.

What are the most problematic countries in case of statelessness?

Stateless people are found on all continents but because of its hidden nature, it is difficult to obtain comprehensive data on the actual number of stateless people in the world. In 2016, UNHCR estimated that at least 10 million people were stateless or at risk of statelessness in 2016. However, data captured by governments and reported to UNHCR were limited to 3.2 million stateless individuals in 75 countries. The highest numbers reported were in Myanmar, Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire.

How many people are stateless now in Europe?

In Europe, UNHCR reported over 570,000 stateless people in 2016.

What can your organization (UNHCR) do to find a solution in these cases?

We assist governments in making sure they have and implement laws and procedures that identify and protect stateless persons and that prevent statelessness. UNHCR and our partners also assist stateless persons in accessing their rights, including the right to a nationality.

Let’s talk about the prevention of statelessness. What is the Global campaign to end statelessness (#IBelong?) about?

The UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness aims to end statelessness within 10 years. It is a devastating legal limbo for the millions of people worldwide who lack any nationality and the human rights protections that go with it. Unlike so many other problems facing governments today, statelessness is relatively easy to solve. Many governments have already reformed their nationality laws or taken concrete measures to grant nationality to stateless people. With enough political will, UNHCR believes statelessness can be resolved. The Global Action Plan to End Statelessness sets out 10 Actions through which the goals of the Campaign will be achieved by States, UNHCR and other stakeholders.

How can we as ordinary Slovak people support this campaign?

You can talk to your friends, family, neighbors, your teachers, your colleagues, your local authorities and your government about statelessness. You can also raise awareness through social media by using one of the many #IBelong Campaign tools available.

Written by: Boba Markovic Baluchova (DocUnion CEO & #MediaAboutDev editor-in-chief), Photo: EMN / IOM Slovakia

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About Media about Development

Writing and reporting about international development topics; development cooperation projects, community development success stories and global challenges (in Slovak and also in English language)
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