Statelessness, or the lack of effective nationality, impacts the daily lives of some 11-12 million people around the world. Perhaps those who suffer most are stateless infants, children and youth. Though born and raised in their parents' country of habitual residence, they lack formal recognition of their existence. A few key steps taken by individual countries and UN agencies can help reduce statelessness among infants and children and prevent millions of youth from growing up isolated from society. The goal of this report, which is dedicated to the promise and potential of all children, is increased recognition of every child's right to a nationality and the actions that can be taken to give them a brighter future.
A number of legal instruments have been created to regulate the status and treatment of stateless persons. The primary international covenants are the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which define statelessness and create rules for attribution of nationality where statelessness would otherwise occur. However, only 63 states are party to the 1954 Convention, and only 35 to the 1961 Convention.
Children may become stateless as a result of political change or when states deliberately write laws excluding minority groups from citizenship, such as in the Dominican Republic, Burma, Estonia and Latvia. When state systems linked to registration are destroyed during conflict or disasters, people may lose access to their birth records and citizenship documents. Families who leave homes and possessions during political crises may flee without identification or lose proof of citizenship. It can also be difficult for children to acquire their parents' nationality when refugee mothers give birth outside their home countries. In addition, countries that determine citizenship exclusively by the father's nationality create problems for children born out of wedlock, separated from their fathers, or whose fathers are stateless.
Statelessness has innumerable consequences on children and there are few agencies addressing their plight. Unlike refugees, stateless children receive neither international recognition nor aid, and they don't have the option of returning to a country of origin like migrants do. The situation can lead to poor home environments and family separation. For example, in Bangladesh some 160,000 stateless Bihari live in severely overcrowded settlements with sometimes a dozen or more family members living in a single small room. In Malaysia, children in Sabah whose migrant parents have been arrested and detained or deported end up living and working on the street.
Birth registration establishes a child's legal identity and the state's responsibility for that child. But without a permanent identity, children will have limited access to health care and to primary education; and are almost universally restricted from receiving public secondary education. In Kuwait, stateless people are denied the right to officially register a birth, marriage, or death. One father said he was able to obtain a birth certificate for his first-born child in 1997. However, when he produced the birth announcement for his second child some ten years later, the Ministry of Health refused to issue a birth certificate. Without one, this man's younger child will be able to attend school only as long as he can afford to pay private school tuition. In other cases, families may be told their children can attend school only if space is available after citizens' children have registered.
Unable to prove their true age, stateless children may be susceptible to exploitation or to punishment as adults. Statelessness may lead to forced or early marriage, harassment, sexual and physical violence, and trafficking. One stateless girl from northern Thailand responded to a job offer in a Bangkok restaurant and ended up trafficked to Malaysia for commercial sexual exploitation in a brothel. She and others were eventually rescued, but then she languished for months in a detention center while states argued where she belonged. Traffickers of stateless children also cannot be taken to court when children are without proper documents that prove their age or resident status.
Stateless children are also frequently unable to obtain passports, to travel freely, or acquire jobs in the formal sector as they get older. Some resort to the use of smugglers to remove themselves from difficult situations or in hopes of supporting themselves and their families. One interviewee in Syria knew a family with five children who were smuggled to Egypt and left stranded there for six months until they agreed to pay the smugglers SYP 1 million (US $20,000) to go to Europe.
The primary responsibility for ending statelessness rests on governments and Refugees International urges all states to respect the fundamental human right of all children to have a nationality. In recent years, the governments of Bangladesh, Mauritania, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates have or are taking steps to provide citizenship to formerly stateless people. In addition, other nations are proactive in preventing statelessness. The Swedish Citizens Act passed in 2000, for example, allows a stateless child born in Sweden to become a citizen if the child is under age five and permanently resides in Sweden.
Some key actions that can be taken now are ensuring that every child is registered at birth, and identifying cases of disputed nationality and grant citizenship when a child would otherwise be stateless. (See page 21 for a full list of recommendations.) The United Nations can support such efforts by strengthening UNHCR to fulfill its mandate on statelessness, organizing a comprehensive survey to identify stateless populations, including children, and reinforcing UNICEF efforts surrounding birth registration and childhood education. As a world leader and international donor, the U.S. should make the prevention and reduction of statelessness among children part of the U.S. human rights agenda and provide financial and diplomatic support to UNHCR and UNICEF for their efforts to prevent and reduce statelessness.