Migration to new and different pastures, for a better livelihood, a change of scenery or adventure. Displacement prompted by war, persecution or natural disaster. These are age-old and enduring human phenomena – now made more complicated than they once were by the increased enforcement and securitisation of borders between states. The hitherto unprecedented scale of migration and displacement today also makes this a difficult and often fraught area of law and policy. There are 244 million migrants in the world today, some 15% of them children. More people are forcibly displaced now than at any other time since the Second World War. According to UNHCR, “the rate at which people are fleeing war and persecution has soared from 6 per minute in 2005 to 24 per minute in 2015”. 21.3 million people are refugees, some five million having fled the Syria conflict alone, and almost 100,000 unaccompanied or separated children lodged asylum applications in 2015. This creates a seriously complex environment in which to protect children from childhood statelessness.
As the essays in this chapter demonstrate, the acquisition and retention of nationality by migrant and refugee children can pose a real challenge. Children who are born after their parents have migrated or been displaced start their lives in what society commonly perceives as their “host” rather than “home” country, which can have significant implications for their access to a nationality at birth. Children born in this context find that they are more prone to falling victim to a conflict of nationality laws, at greater risk of having their birth go unregistered1 and often surprisingly beyond reach of the very safeguards designed to protect children in their situation from statelessness. That statelessness can be both a driving force behind and consequence of migration and forced displacement is widely acknowledged, but the essays presented here bring to light a new depth to this relationship. Collectively they constitute essential reading in the present climate when so many questions are being asked about how to ensure a more appropriate, sustainable and effective response to the vulnerabilities experienced by the world’s growing migrant and refugee populations.
The chapter opens with an essay by Jyothi Kanics, a Doctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Law of the University of Lucerne, who captures the vulnerable situations children can find themselves in when left stateless in a wide variety of migration contexts. She elaborates on the diversity of circumstances that can put children at risk of statelessness and the impact lack of nationality has for children ‘on the move’. This is followed by a series of contributions that look more closely at the relationship between statelessness and forced displacement. Helen Brunt is based in the Secretariat of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), and leads off this topic with a short essay on the stateless Rohingya – one of the world’s largest populations to be afflicted by inter-generational statelessness and a group that has undeniably seen statelessness operate as a vector for further rights violations and a root cause for displacement. Her piece is accompanied by a selection of compelling pictures by Saiful Huq Omi, a photographer-activist who has dedicated many years to giving people a sense for the Rohingya’s lives and plight through photography.
Next to address the problem of statelessness among (children of) refugees is Monica Sanchez Bermudez, Global Adviser – Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Her essay canvases the challenges in establishing legal identity and the related risk of statelessness in situations of forced displacement. By explaining the reasoning behind and techniques adopted in NRC’s own work on the prevention of statelessness, through promoting access to civil documentation – giving examples of projects in Myanmar and Jordan – she also offers a window into some of the very practical mitigating measures that can be taken by organisations working in displacement contexts. The subsequent essay by Zahra Albarazi, Senior Researcher at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, zooms in again, looking specifically at the interaction between (childhood) statelessness and forced displacement in the context of the Syria crisis. Albarazi presents the highlights of a research project carried out by ISI and NRC in 2016, looking at the situation of refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria. She also offers a taster of the toolkit that was developed on the basis of the research and consultations conducted, which aims to translate the knowledge gathered into easy-to-digest material and practical tips.
Albarazi’s essay is followed with two very different contributions. The first contains short interviews with people for whom statelessness and displacement is a lived reality, provided by Thomas McGee, an expert on the situation of stateless Kurds from Syria. In these interviews, families from Syria whose children are affected by both statelessness and now also displacement open a window into their lives. Thereafter – and last in the set of essays to look at statelessness among children in the refugee context – is a more legal-philosophical contribution by Gábor Gyulai, Refugee Programme Director at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Drawing on his experience in responding to refugee situations in Eastern Europe, Gyulai reflects on some deeper questions that go to the heart of the position of children born in exile, to refugee parents. He pinpoints four clear challenges refugee children can face in enjoying their right to a nationality, and becoming (at risk) of statelessness and suggests a number of steps that could be explored in order to better equip actors to deal with the dilemmas that they confront.
The last four contributions in this chapter move away from the forced displacement context to look at other situations in which migration and statelessness interact. Heather Alexander, a Doctoral candidate researching statelessness among nomadic peoples, writes about the nexus between statelessness, education and nomadic children. It is a knowledge-broadening chapter on a topic that is largely untouched, yet presents another worrisome cause of (increased risks of) statelessness. Alexander affirms the importance of the right to a nationality for every child, but stresses the additional importance of a nationality and the meaning of the right to education for nomadic children by touching on some concrete challenges faced by nomadic groups in different parts of the world. The next essay, by Alice Sironi and Michela Machiavello, both migration experts with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), provides a fresh take on childhood statelessness in the context of international migration. They comment on the specific situations of unaccompanied children and children who became victims of trafficking, before elaborating on some of IOM’s programmes that aim to mitigate risks of statelessness in migratory contexts. Providing a concrete sense of how the migration context can create complex bureaucratic obstacles for people to overcome in order to obtain vital documentation of identity and nationality – and focusing specifically on access to birth registration – Laura Bosch, Legal Advisor at Defence for Children in the Netherlands, briefly presents two cases from their work which exemplify the difficulties. The chapter then closes with an essay by Lilana Keith, Advocacy Officer on Children’s Rights and Labour Rights at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), looking at why children of undocumented parents can be exposed to statelessness. Scoping the broader European context, Keith shows how undocumented migrant children are often overlooked in migration and public polices, leading to barriers to civil registration and a wide variety of other human rights violations. She explains how discriminatory approaches in civil registration and nationality procedures can lead to further marginalisation of undocumented children in Europe by putting them at risk of statelessness.
1 Lack of birth registration, in particular in a migration or displacement context, can put children at risk of statelessness because it leaves them without evidence of the vital facts of birth which determine their position under the relevant states’ nationality laws.