The SDGs and childhood statelessness
In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following on the heels of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they offer a plan for global development for the next fifteen years. It was hoped that the SDGs would fix problems raised with the MDGs. For example, following criticism that the MDGs did not address the needs of the poorest, least enfranchised and most excluded members of the global community, "leave no one behind" became a theme for the SDGs. This makes the importance of including stateless persons and stateless children in the realisation of the Agenda particularly clear. Other problems raised regarding the MDGs include reporting inconsistencies and accountability difficulties. To ensure that stateless populations are not ‘left behind’, these aspects will be especially important to consider, as data on stateless persons is notoriously scant and their inclusion in development is often politically difficult to achieve. In exploring how to use the SDG framework to include stateless children in development efforts, it will be necessary to acknowledge both its strengths and its limitations.
2. Leaving No One Behind: do the SDGs apply to stateless children?
The drafters of the SDGs have made efforts specifically to include groups that had been left out in the implementation of the MDGs. This includes those excluded because of their ‘status’, or their lack of a recognised ‘status’ in the country in question (for example, irregular migrants, stateless persons, and those with a temporary residence status). The first paragraphs of the SDG resolution document emphasise that a person should not experience discrimination in access to development based on ‘status’. It appears in the list included in that document: ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status’. While many stateless persons are likely to suffer through one or more of the other forms of discrimination listed, it is important to note that the inclusion of ‘status’ in this list could refer to a lack of recognised status and therefore prohibit discrimination based on statelessness itself .
2.1 The Relevance of Recognised Status and the Importance of Children
Target 10.2 of the SDGs calls for the inclusion and empowerment of individuals irrespective of status and Target 17.18 advocates that data collected should be disaggregated for migration status, among other factors. This recognition of the need for disaggregation by status opens the way to look more broadly at how status and a lack of recognised status affects access to development. Thus, while stateless persons are not addressed explicitly in the SDGs, it is possible to find routes for their inclusion.
Stateless children risk double exclusion, on account also of their age or of non-recognition of their special development needs. The SDGs ask for non-discrimination by age and inclusion of ‘children and youth’. Moreover, the specific needs of children in development are also acknowledged, for example, in terms of their vulnerability to disease and malnutrition (Targets 2.2 and 3.2) and their need for education (all of which impact on their longer-term ability to access development), as well as their risk of exploitation (Targets 8.7 and 16.2). However, work is needed to ensure that these latter points include children that are stateless.
2.2 Including Stateless Children in Development Strategising
That there is recognition that stateless persons should be considered in work towards the SDGs is clear from the Reference Guide to UN Country Teams, published in February 2016. Throughout, when referring to vulnerable and marginalised communities, the drafters of this document explicitly mention "internally displaced persons, non-nationals such as refugees and stateless persons, and minorities", in terms both of those who should be made aware of the Agenda’s existence, and those who need to be included in development priorities. Indeed, they even emphasise the importance of including the perspectives of "persons affected by […] statelessness" in developing national strategies. This can then provide a useful resource for those seeking to understand and promote the place of stateless children in the Sustainable Development Agenda.
2.3 Disaggregation of Data
The SDGs emphasise the importance of disaggregated data. On the face of it, disaggregated data ensuring that development includes stateless adults and children is positive. However, the way in which this is done will dictate whether disaggregation is beneficial or problematic for stateless children. As is evident in the debate around Target 16.9 “legal identity for all, including birth registration”, there are risks associated with documenting people in the absence of other inclusion measures . For example, where nationality laws are discriminatory, someone who should have access to citizenship will be documented as stateless. Such documentation could also fix a lack of status, making it difficult to contest. There is also a risk that those who are stateless and able to access resources in an informal manner may be forced to demonstrate their legal identity and so find this informal access more difficult to achieve.
The need to be aware of local contexts can be seen if we consider the Dominican Republic National Development Strategy 2030. Articles 22.214.171.124 and 126.96.36.199 are ostensibly supportive of the inclusion of stateless children in development. The former commits to strengthen programmes providing identity documents in order to facilitate better inclusion, while the latter commits to improve the coverage of registration of children, particularly members of excluded groups. And yet a narrowing of the definition of who is eligible for citizenship means that this is likely not to address the principle cause of statelessness in the Dominican Republic, which is the denationalisation of persons considered to be of Haitian heritage.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. For example, work in this area might include firewalls between identification systems and development data, so that the increased use of identification documents does not force individuals to reveal sensitive information (such as that relating to ethnicity, membership of a minority group, or lack of recognised status) to school authorities and healthcare providers.
2.4 Including Stateless Persons from the Start
If stateless children are to be included in the work towards the SDGs, it is particularly important to include them in the indicators as early as possible. At the time of writing, the indicators on the SDGs do not mention stateless persons or stateless children directly. Stateless children are often among the poorest and most disenfranchised. Including them in development reporting, then, where they were not included before, might initially set back reported progress. This means that if their inclusion is left too late into the process on the SDGs, it will become increasingly difficult to do so.
3. Making the Most of Aspiration
In the MDGs there were no clear mechanisms for accountability, or ramifications for failing to reach (or make progress towards) the Goals. While this was cause for criticism of the MDGs, it has been suggested that this lack of accountability could be used advantageously. That is, in the absence of any enforcement mechanism, there is the potential to push for more aspirational goals than would be possible otherwise, and in so doing to provide a complement to human rights frameworks. For example, rather than seeking reductions in the number of persons living in (non-‘extreme’) poverty, the Agenda could aspire to end poverty outright.
The lack of explicit inclusion of stateless children in the SDGs makes clear that this aspirational approach to the SDGs has not yet been adopted. Strategising around the way in which they are implemented could potentially help to address this, for example by explicitly moving beyond the tendency in human rights laws to distinguish between nationals and non-nationals.
3.1 A Lack of Accountability
The lack of accountability could have freed the development agenda to aspire to the development of a world that went beyond basic minimum standards of human rights for all. It could also have provided a vehicle for addressing some of the most difficult and intractable issues, which continue to go unaddressed despite human rights frameworks guaranteeing them. The recognition of status and the granting of nationality is one such issue. While there is a universal right to a nationality, many persons are still unable to make use of this right.
The freedom offered by the reduced accountability found in the SDGs, could have provided an opportunity to set out what an ideal world would be like for currently stateless children and adults. However, in the absence of this aspiration, the lack of accountability risks making the Agenda seem toothless.
Alongside the lack of ramifications for failure, critics have argued that the celebration of success on the MDGs provided a way in which governments could distract attention from failures to protect human rights or to make progress in other areas. This possibility remains in the SDGs and those working in the area will need to ensure that the needs of stateless children are explicitly included in the Agenda. For example, local experts on statelessness and stateless children need to be vigilant to ensure that development strategies produced in line with the Agenda do not airbrush stateless children out of development commitments and take into account local contexts of statelessness.
3.2 Enriching or Devaluing Human Rights?
The importance of the intersection of development and human rights frameworks is set out, for example, in The Future We Want, which formalised the plan for drafting the Agenda. However, it has been suggested that this may have been divisive. That is, the aspirational nature of the SDGs in utilising the language of existing human rights commitments –but not going beyond them – risks lessening the power of the human rights agenda, suggesting that human rights obligations are also aspirational, rather than legally required. It will be crucial to address this through the way that the SDGs are taken forward. One suggestion which has been made on how to do this is to use human rights mechanisms including treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review in monitoring the implementation of the SDGs.
3.3. An Opportunity to Look Beyond Citizens
The global nature of the SDGs could perhaps have provided an opportunity to look beyond citizens and those whose national identity is formally recognised by States. In its current formation, there is a risk that this opportunity was not taken. However, those working on the Agenda can still look beyond citizens and those included by States in constructing how the SDGs are interpreted and progress is measured.
4. An Awareness of the Limitations of Structure
The structure of the SDGs could be considered limiting. While development is complex, multilevel, and multifaceted, the Development Agenda is in the form of a linear series of goals and targets. One concern is that the large number of Goals (17) and Targets (169) weakens their impact, and that the attempt to include so many groups specifically emphasises the exclusion of those left out. The work towards the MDGs was criticised for its focus on States, giving insufficient weight to the role of local and regional actors in development. Related was the criticism that there was a failure to recognise the extent to which global systems of trade, finance, taxation and politics, for example, affect development. While some of these concerns have been addressed in the SDGs, an awareness of their limitations will be useful in strategising.
4.1 A Long List
While the MDGs were presented in a simple list of eight Goals, the SDGs attempted to address much that had been omitted from the MDGs and to satisfy the concerns of many groups. On the one hand, this could risk watering down the existing Goals by providing too many issues to focus on. On the other hand, the attempt to include everyone’s concerns in the Goals risks making it seem like anything that was left out of the Agenda is no longer a development priority. Whether either of these turns out to be a problem will be directed by the way in which all actors strategise around the Agenda. The explicit inclusion of the needs and interests of stateless children in strategy documents and discourse will be an important part of demonstrating that the SDGs provide a stepping-off point rather than a limit for setting out priorities.
4.2 State Development vs Global, Regional and Local Development
While the SDGs emphasise the special development importance of urban (Target 11.2) and rural (Targets 2.a and 11.a) populations and the need to take into account shared stakes in development across global regions, it is true that the focus is still principally on States, and on State-by-State measurement of progress. For stateless children, this carries with it two risks. First, some stateless populations straddle State borders and responsibility for their protection is often denied by both or all States concerned. The State-by-State approach does not provide anything beyond existing mechanisms to address this. Second, stateless persons often engage in different ways and with different levels of political arrangement. For example, in some regions, local and provincial political participation and inclusion in development may be available, even to those not recognised on the State level. Conversely, persons granted citizenship or other status may in practice still be excluded locally.
As agencies strategise around the SDGs and the inclusion of stateless children, it will be important to take these different levels into account – and as States, localities, and cities, as well as global and regional groupings strategise, it will be important for them to engage with each other regarding the inclusion of stateless children. Stateless children live all over the world, in countries of all development groups. Though the precise development considerations differ from place to place and the way in which children become stateless or at risk of statelessness also differs, the inclusion of stateless children in development is not something that can be ignored in any region and needs a cooperative global and multi-level approach.
The text of the SDGs has now been fixed and the relevant actors are strategizing on how to work towards them. It is important, then, to ensure that stateless children and their needs are explicitly acknowledged in strategy documents and discourses. This would require the input of experts in the particular needs of stateless persons (not least stateless persons themselves) to be included in the drafting of strategies to ensure that they are genuinely conducive to the inclusion of stateless persons in development, and are accountable to those stateless persons, including stateless children.
Consultation and accountability will also help to avoid problematic consequences for stateless persons, including stateless children, of broader development strategising. For example, in Norway’s voluntary contribution to the 2016 High Level Political Forum assessing progress on the SDG Agenda, reference was made to Target 10.7 on facilitating migration and mobility in an orderly way. The document proposes to make a commitment to ‘prevent and limit irregular migration, while at the same time meeting its obligations under international law to protect persons in need of international protection’. Additional work is needed to ensure that these efforts would not in fact impair the ability of those stateless persons to travel, including stateless children who may lack documents, including the ability to travel in order to escape situations of exploitation, severe vulnerability and persecution.
As mentioned above, to ensure that stateless children benefit from the global development agenda, they need to be explicitly included in strategising around the SDGs. This will require a recognition both of the limitations of the Agenda and of its potential strengths. It will also require collaboration between stateless communities and their representatives, human rights communities, and development communities, to ensure that efforts both avoid risking negative consequences for stateless children and positively promote their participation in development. The SDGs could also provide a vehicle for bringing together existing global efforts to address the problems associated with statelessness – and draw attention to the complexities of statelessness within the development community.