Leiden Law Blog

A generation of invisible children

Posted on by Cristina Azzarello in Public Law
A generation of invisible children

Each of us usually has a nationality and as we grow up we do not normally pay any attention to this state of affairs. It is an intrinsic characteristic of a person, like their name or the colour of their eyes. Even if we consider that statelessness might be an issue, we usually think it will be a random, individual and apparently largely isolated case, perhaps related to the refugee crisis – as we know millions of people have been forcefully internally displaced or have become refugees.

In order to put this into perspective, pursuant to a report issued by the Human Rights Council in December 2015, around 10 million people worldwide are stateless. Among them, over one third are children. Every ten minutes, a child is born stateless and every year, more than 70,000 children in the world are born into statelessness.

According to international law, in particular Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the term “stateless person” means an individual who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law. International human rights law guarantees the right of every child to acquire a nationality and the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of nationality. The right of everyone to a nationality is enshrined in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is recognised in many other international and regional human rights instruments. In particular, the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that children should be registered immediately after birth and have the right from birth to acquire a nationality. While states may exercise discretion in determining the rules of access to nationality, such rules must comply with the principles of international human rights law, in particular the best interests of the child and non-discrimination.

When they are not granted a nationality and the relevant identification documents, children are subject not only to a violation of the right to nationality but also to violations of other fundamental human rights. Indeed, with the exception of certain specific rights, such as the right to vote, entitlement to human rights is not based on the nationality of the individual but rather on his or her human dignity. In practice, however, those without a nationality have seen their enjoyment of various human rights negatively affected. The right to identity for instance, being so closely related to the right to a nationality, is impaired by the arbitrary deprivation of nationality and such deprivation also undermines a child’s right to juridical personality and to a name.

Discrimination in access to healthcare is prohibited under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Despite this prohibition, stateless children face discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to health, usually due to lack of documentation, as medical facilities often require documents attesting nationality in order to treat a child, including vaccination.

Although statelessness and non-citizenship should have no bearing on the enjoyment of the right to education, they surely constitute another impediment to children’s access to school, consequently limiting their job opportunities as they become adults. Such limitations often lead to a higher exposure to exploitative and hazardous work.

Other obstacles, such as travel restrictions and higher medical costs for non-nationals, also jeopardise children’s right to health. The deprivation of nationality and/or statelessness negatively impacts on children’s right to private and family life, to an adequate standard of living and to freedom of movement, as it limits their opportunities to enter or reside in the territory of a state. Last, but not least, the arbitrary deprivation of nationality heightens children’s vulnerability to human trafficking, military recruitment and sexual exploitation. In the context of migration or forced displacement, stateless children are more vulnerable to arbitrary and lengthy immigration detention, which in addition to constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, may undermine their psychological and physical well-being and compromise their cognitive development.

In view of the above, if so many rights are endangered by the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, what can be done to limit the negative effects of statelessness and progressively reduce the number of stateless children?

Many NGOs around the globe, as well as international organisations are working to end statelessness. Two years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched the #IBelong campaign, with the purpose ofdrawing attention to  statelessness and encouraging states to end this legal limbo. Yes, states once again are the major agents of change in this regard. They can prevent childhood statelessness by closing the gaps between international law and domestic legislation and by effectively implementing substantive and procedural safeguards in their nationality laws.  States must ensure that effective and appropriate remedies are available, including the reinstatement of nationality. As required by Target 16.9 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, states should ensure universal free birth registration and guarantee that the birth of every child on their national territory is registered immediately, especially if those children would otherwise be without nationality.

Let’s end statelessness. Let’s end the invisibility of future generations.

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