If we don’t work to ensure that everyone in Europe and the world has a nationality, this purely man-made problem will continue to be passed from one generation to the next, writes UNHCR's Aikaterini Kitidi
By Aikaterini Kitidi, UNHCR
Today, at a meeting in the European Parliament, a cross-party group of parliamentarians called on member states and the European Commission to do away with a social injustice affecting thousands of people in the Western Balkans: the lack of birth certificates and nationality for Roma children and adults, which has a devastating impact on their daily lives.
The problem is of grave concern not only to the Roma, but also to other stateless people in Europe, whose number rises to hundreds of thousands. Statelessness creates a chasm between them and the wider community, threatening the cohesion of our society as a whole. If we don’t work to ensure that everyone in Europe and the world has a nationality, this purely man-made problem will continue to be passed from one generation to the next.
Here are five key reasons why statelessness should constitute an ever-present concern.
1. By the time you finish reading this post, another child may be born without a nationality
Every day, children are born without a nationality, through no fault of their own. Countries across the globe report 3.2 million stateless people on their territories – but their true number could even be three times higher.
The main reason behind their statelessness is discrimination. Most people are denied a nationality due to their histories, their looks, their language or their faith. Exclusion and persecution often describe the existence of the world’s stateless populations.
“You’re a shadow here… Just a shadow. You pass by and no one sees you. You have no rights. Like a man living normally, just walking and working, and all of a sudden he loses a leg. And then, he is disabled. This is what this situation has done to me,” said Nuzret Hodzic, a stateless man living in Montenegro.
2. Statelessness may affect people in your community or country
From Scandinavia to the Black Sea, hundreds of thousands of people live without nationality in Europe. A large number of people became stateless after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More than 20 years later, statelessness remains a concern in that part of Europe.
In addition, in the states that once made up Yugoslavia, groups of people fell through the cracks of the new legislation, becoming stateless. Though many have managed to establish their nationality, members of minority groups, especially Roma, continue to face difficulties.
In many countries across the continent, gaps in nationality laws continue to create statelessness at birth and later in life.
These stateless people are not asking for special treatment. They are only asking for equal treatment – the chance to have the same opportunities as all citizens. “One day, I presented my stateless document to the bank. They asked me ‘where is this country “Stateless” located?’”, explained Anastasia Trevogin, a formerly stateless woman living in France.
3. Statelessness can take away basic rights that most of us take for granted
Statelessness is not just the lack of nationality: It can mean a life without education or medical care. It can mean a life without the ability to move freely, without prospects or hope.
The inability to secure documentation can deprive people from legal or sustainable employment, and from obtaining licenses or loans. Thus it can trap them in an unending cycle of poverty, making them vulnerable to exploitation and increasing anxiety for their physical safety and security.
Nino, a stateless young woman from Georgia, saw her dreams put on hold due to her lack of nationality: “I have been playing [the trombone] for years, but because I am stateless, I couldn’t continue my studies at the conservatory to have a profession that I dream of. The only job which I can have with my current status is being a babysitter.”
4. Statelessness is a key aspect of the fastest-growing refugee emergency of our time
Statelessness has deep links to some of the world’s most pressing global emergencies, like the Myanmar crisis, driving over 600,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. Born and raised in Myanmar for multiple generations, the Rohingya know no other place to call home. Denial of citizenship is a key aspect of the entrenched discrimination and exclusion that have shaped their plight for decades.
The Syria conflict is another crisis where we see links between forced displacement and risks of statelessness. A 2014 assessment found that the conflict has left many women without their husbands and many times without a marriage certificate which puts their children at risk of statelessness, as Syrian children born outside Syria as refugees can only acquire nationality through their fathers. Adults also face the risk of statelessness when their documentation is lost, destroyed or confiscated due to the conflict or displacement.
Although the majority of stateless people in Europe were born in the region, there are also stateless migrants and refugees who have come from other areas with known stateless populations, including Syria, Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire and Iraq.
5. It is up to your governments to end this injustice
It is governments that establish who their nationals are, and governments can change their laws and procedures, to give stateless people a place to belong. Together with regional institutions, civil society and the stateless people themselves, they should join forces in order to find effective solutions.
The ultimate solution to statelessness is the granting of nationality. But until this is achieved, it is important that stateless people enjoy their basic human rights, allowing them to live in dignity. In order to achieve this, governments in Europe should ensure that:
- Stateless persons or persons whose citizenship is undetermined acquire or confirm their citizenship.
- No child is born stateless by granting citizenship automatically at birth to all children born in Europe who are otherwise stateless.
- All children born in Europe are registered at birth regardless of their parents’ nationality, documentation or legal status so that every child’s legal identity is established and the risk of statelessness is reduced.
- Stateless migrants are identified and protected and the naturalization of stateless migrants and refugees is facilitated.
- All European countries are parties to both UN Statelessness Conventions.
Aikaterini Kitidi is a communications officer at UNHCR. Click here for more information on how to take action to end statelessness.
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