Mobilising to address childhood statelessness: The experience of the European Network on Statelessness through its #StatelessKids campaign
It is important to frame recent success achieved in mobilising to address childhood statelessness in Europe, within the wider development of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and related dynamics which have helped propel the ‘issue emergence’ of statelessness in recent years. These developments also need to be understood as part of a larger global trend, further galvanised by the UNHCR-led #ibelong campaign to eradicate statelessness globally within a decade, which commenced with an initial two-year focus on children and youth. UNHCR and UNICEF recently also launched a global coalition on every child’s right to a nationality, and there have been various initiatives in other regions to address childhood statelessness.
2. The development of the European Network on Statelessness
The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) is a young and vibrant civil society alliance of NGOs, academics and experts committed to addressing statelessness in Europe. ENS was founded to fill a historical gap by acting as a coordinating body and expert resource for organisations working to end statelessness in Europe. At the heart of our strategy has been an understanding of the need to mainstream and raise awareness about statelessness and nationality issues, to build the capacity of civil society, and to act as an effective catalyst for change. The need for an umbrella organisation dedicated to working on statelessness has been vindicated by the fact that, since our launch in June 2012, ENS has attracted over 100 members in 39 European countries.
3. Planning the ENS #StatelessKids campaign
From its early days, ENS was conscious that new cases of statelessness continued to arise within Europe’s borders. This was due to a number of factors including because several European countries were failing to ensure that all children could realise their right to nationality. ENS conducted some initial scoping research – published in April 2014 in its report ‘Preventing Childhood Statelessness in Europe: Issues, Gaps and Good Practices’ which provided an initial snapshot of how Europe was performing with respect to relevant standards in this regard. Subsequently, in April 2014, ENS decided that its second region-wide campaign would centre on childhood statelessness, and be launched on International Children’s Day, 20 November 2014.1
3.1 Why focus on childhood statelessness - the strengths of a child-focused campaign
The following considerations helped inform the decision to focus the campaign on ending childhood statelessness:
- The benefit of being able to pursue a truly Council of Europe wide campaign because the issue is relevant in Western Europe (incomplete or poorly implemented legislative safeguards), Southern and Eastern Europe (birth registration issues), as well as countries with large, protracted populations (intergenerational statelessness).
- The potential for ENS to engage a wider range of stakeholders, including some which do not traditionally work on statelessness but have an interest in children’s rights.
- The greater scope to interest the media and engage people through social media.
- The opportunity to also engage otherwise ‘unlikely’ partners, e.g. a celebrity goodwill ambassador, children’s authors, schools, and others.
- The chance to make good use of existing research, including the ENS paper on preventing childhood statelessness in Europe, the EUDO database of nationality laws in Europe, and work in the Western Balkans on problems accessing birth registration for children.
3.2 Scope of the campaign and key objectives
At an early stage of planning it was decided that the campaign would have a narrow scope, focusing on preventing childhood statelessness in Europe. Other dimensions of the problem, such as protection of stateless children, could be highlighted, but in support of rather than as part of the campaign’s key objective. It was therefore agreed that the core campaign message should be simple and easy to communicate: namely that none of Europe’s children should be stateless. This approach left open the option of widening the scope if the campaign were extended beyond 2014-2016.
We had the following specific objectives:
- Raise awareness of the issue of childhood statelessness in Europe and measures to address it;
- Discuss the importance of children’s right to a nationality for the work of child rights actors, build capacity of the child rights community to engage on the issue and develop partnerships;
- Study the content of and extent to which national legislative safeguards are implemented;
- Study the legislative and practical barriers to accessing nationality for children born to stateless parents in countries with large stateless populations;
- Identify situations in which lack of birth registration is putting children at risk of statelessness;
- Promote accessions to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and/or the 1997 European Convention on Nationality;
- Promote the introduction/improvement and effective implementation of safeguards within nationality laws;
- Promote facilitated access to nationality for children born to stateless parents in countries with large, protracted situations of statelessness;
- Study the obstacles that prevent effective birth registration among populations at risk of statelessness, with a focus on identifying good practices to ensure access to birth registration.
3.3 Engaging partners and fostering a strong campaign alliance
A key to the success of the campaign would be ENS’s ability to engage not only its members but also other partners as part of a broad and growing alliance. One obvious and key partner was UNHCR given the #ibelong campaign’s priority focus on youth and children, and action two of its ten-year plan to eradicate statelessness. Dedicated discussions ensued, including with UNHCR’s Europe’s Bureau, which resulted in support for various joint initiatives. Another key partnership forged was with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, which as an expert-partner for the campaign, helped supervise and coordinate pan-European research.
Other key partners included the European Union (particularly the European Parliament) and Council of Europe (particularly the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons). We also strengthened collaboration with UNICEF and the OSCE High Commissioner of National Minorities, national ombudspersons, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) and the Children’s Rights Ombudspersons Network in South and Eastern Europe (CRONSEE). Given the importance of engaging youth, key partners identified included CoE Youth organisations (e.g. European Youth Forum), the European Youth Parliament, Model United Nations conferences and schools. Another anticipated key collaboration was with academia, for example through the EUDO-Citizenship Observatory, the European Network of Masters in Children’s Rights, Children’s Rights Erasmus Academic Network and various University law clinics. Finally, a key objective of the campaign was to engage regional networks and large international NGOs specialising on child rights issues.
4. Implementing the ENS #StatelessKids Campaign
The campaign was designed to develop organically, with flexibility to react to and explore new opportunities. However, in broad terms it was anticipated that the first year should focus more on research and building a stronger evidence base, whereas the second year should focus more strongly on awareness-raising, including a more visible public-facing campaign phase.
4.1 Year one of the campaign – Research, raising awareness and building alliances
In December 2014 ENS related a call to its members (and more widely) inviting applications to conduct country studies on childhood statelessness. Each study would be undertaken on the basis of a common methodology and template. This required detailed analysis of law and policy; the identification and analysis of relevant jurisprudence; and interviews with implementing authorities, lawyers, other service providers and relevant organisations. In addition, researchers were asked to produce case studies of stateless (or formerly stateless) children in the country and to discuss the cause of the child’s statelessness, its impact and measures taken to address their situation.
Eight country studies were published (Albania, Macedonia, Italy, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia and Romania). This information/research, combined with analysis of nationality laws in 45 Council of Europe member states, also informed a final synthesis/comparative report titled ‘No Child Should be Stateless’, which was intended as a platform for continuing advocacy and campaigning. One aspect of the research process that worked particularly well was the opportunity it provided to utilise research funds to resource and capacitate ENS members to engage more broadly on the issue, and to support advocacy during and after research had been completed. Commissioning research by members unlocked their additional buy-in and in-kind support during the remainder of the campaign.
4.1.2 Raising awareness
In parallel to the research, we developed accessible tools to engage a wider constituency. With limited resources available, this took three main forms:
- Design and dissemination of two fact sheets on children’s right to nationality.
- Social media engagement to raise awareness.
- Preparation and piloting of outreach kits for schools.
Recognising the wider lack of awareness about the causes and consequences of childhood statelessness, we decided to design accessible fact sheets to help inform those new to the issue, support planned outreach work in schools and a dedicated social media strategy.
Our starting point was that most children – and adults – take their nationality for granted: they do not think about how or why they got it, what it allows them to do or what would be different if they had another nationality or no nationality at all. Few even know that it is possible to be stateless. This was a key rationale for designing and rolling out a school’s outreach pilot (initially in Poland and Macedonia). This involved a short series of classes at which secondary school students were required to reflect on the meaning of their own nationality and learn about the phenomenon of statelessness. The activities were intended to prompt students to think about how divisions are drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and how these divisions can serve to create statelessness. By learning about stateless persons as a vulnerable group in society, students gained a greater awareness of their own rights, helping them to be better informed citizens. After looking at how statelessness can affect children in Europe, students were asked to apply their new knowledge by contributing ideas to ENS’s campaign.
One such outlet related to the campaign’s social media strategy, and the potential provided by the schools outreach component to bring the issue of childhood statelessness ‘out of the classroom’ for school children across Europe, and to engage them as campaigners on this issue. Moreover, it was envisaged that Facebook pages linking up students from two or more schools in different European countries could be an exciting way for young people to get involved with the campaign.
Evaluation forms completed by participating students certainly suggested that the classes had developed a useful social change perspective, with most students declaring the experience as eye-opening. They admitted that they learned about things (and people) they would otherwise blissfully ignore.
Social media was also identified as an important vehicle to expand the reach of our messaging to new audiences. Over recent years, social media has brought about a change in how supporters view campaigns and campaigning organisations; it is not hyperbolic to say that it has revolutionised the campaigning landscape. The informality of the medium, coupled with its potential to facilitate interaction and dialogue, makes for a much more exciting communications environment for NGOs. Communications for campaigns are moving from a traditional, top-down model, which sees supporters as passive recipients of messages and information, to a more dynamic model that conceptualises communications as a peer-peer dialogue.
4.1.3 Engaging child rights actors and other key stakeholders
Underpinning broader awareness raising work, specific attention was paid to engage child rights actors, as well as the process of establishing advocacy relationships with other key stakeholders.
The first phase of country research was presented at a pan European conference in Budapest in June 2015 which was attended by 100 participants from 30 European countries.2 ENS and other experts presenting their research, and a conference action statement, which would guide ongoing collective efforts to eradicate childhood statelessness in Europe was issued.
Conference participants recognised the importance of identifying any misconceptions, myths or fears surrounding the issue and conducting research to counter them. Also identified was the importance of designing and implementing research projects to enable the generation of different types and format of product, for different audiences and purposes, including integrating storytelling or multimedia components, as appropriate.
Another theme highlighted was the inadequacy of existing data on children’s access to nationality and birth registration and the scale of childhood statelessness. It was noted that government bodies should be encouraged to review and improve their disaggregated data collection, including through national censuses and municipal/population registries. As a solution, it was recognised that this could also be encouraged through human rights mechanisms (including the CRC) and by working with UNICEF and other child rights actors to promote the systematic generation of reliable data.
The action statement, which was endorsed at the conference, proved a useful way to communicate these and other key findings and build consensus among participants (and a wider constituency). The format of the conference, combining a diverse mix of stakeholders (government and civil society) with a series of inter-linked and free-flowing panel discussions helped facilitate a lively and interactive discussion. Finally, the strategy of combining the presentation of research by ENS members with a wider call for proposals enabled the conference to encompass a broad perspective. Many participants commented that the conference helped ‘to put the issue of childhood statelessness on the map’.
Timed to coincide with the regional conference in Budapest, a training workshop was held, as part of the efforts to engage child rights actors. This helped increase capacity of participants but it proved challenging to attract as many child rights actors as hoped. However, the seeds of effective collaboration were successfully forged with conference speakers, including the Chair of ENOC, a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and a representative of UNICEF.
Later in 2015, it was decided to organise two separate launch events for the report ‘No Child Should be Stateless’. The first was jointly organised with the UNHCR Representation in Strasbourg on 21 September 2015.3 It was attended by around 50 participants, including PACE members, other CoE representatives, national representations, NGOs and academics. A keynote address was given by CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, who welcomed and endorsed the report. A presentation was also made by Stefano di Manlio, the rapporteur for a PACE report on children’s right to a nationality.
A second launch event, held in the European Parliament in Brussels on 01 December 2015 and hosted by Jean Lambert MEP, sought to promote the issue of statelessness more widely among EU Institutions. The event was jointly organised with the European Parliament’s Inter Group on Children Rights, thereby enabling the childhood statelessness issue to be mainstreamed among the wider portfolio of child rights issues championed by the Group and its member MEPs.
4.2 Year 2 of the campaign – Advocacy focus and public-facing campaign phase
The second year focussed on public-facing campaign work aimed at engaging a wider constituency, coupled with targeted action to achieve concrete change in selected priority countries.
4.2.1 Developing key messages and a call for action on European leaders to address the issue
The overall lack of knowledge on the issue among the general public prompted the idea of designing a pan-European petition calling on European leaders to end childhood statelessness. The petition involved a series of revelations or communication exercises to take the 'audience' from a state of ignorance, through interest to concern. The petition (which is now closed) was hosted on the WeMove platform and was translated into 11 languages. The petition text explained some of the most common problems associated with childhood statelessness, while calling all European states to:
- Accede to the UN 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions;
- Address gaps in their laws and practice to implement comprehensive safeguards to identify and grant nationality to children born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless; and
- Ensure access to free and universal birth registration in order to prevent statelessness.
The petition was further supported by a range of online materials, primarily designed around case studies highlighting the impact of statelessness on the lives of individual children, such as access to healthcare, education and birth registration. It was launched in June 2016 and was signed by over 20,000 individuals within the first 30 days. This first collection of signatures was delivered to the Chair of the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights, Ms Corraza Bildt MEP, at an event in the European Parliament in July 2016.
As part of the public campaign drive, a short animation piece was produced explaining what it is like to be stateless and what impact this has on children. The video was narrated by an eight-year-old girl using direct quotes from stateless children collected by ENS’ national members. The video was published on Facebook and YouTube in over 10 different languages, and consistently used throughout the campaign by ENS members, partners and the ENS secretariat.
The petition was further underpinned by a dedicated micro-site providing a space to keep supporters up-to-date on campaign developments as well as to highlight the case studies and host other campaign materials. In the final stages of the campaign, ENS designed a visually engaging and easy to comprehend set of infographics explaining the main concepts behind statelessness.
4.2.2 Engaging youth with the campaign and staging the first ever Youth Congress on Statelessness
In order to broaden the group of volunteer supporters working at national level, ENS designed a programme to engage young European activists and to equip them with skills necessary to become Youth Ambassadors supporting the #StatelessKids campaign.
The first ever Youth Congress on statelessness was held in Brussels between 11 and 13 July. Supported by the Maastricht University School of Law and UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, the event provided an opportunity for 35 selected young delegates to hear about the effects of statelessness and participate in training, planning sessions and direct advocacy activities. The event gave the Youth Ambassadors an opportunity to hear from leading experts and academics, UN agencies and Members of the European Parliament on the issue, as well as advocacy and communications experts on how to advocate for change. The congress proved an exceptionally dynamic forum to inspire engagement, as evident from feedback by individuals who attended. This included the design of individual campaign plans in the 12 countries represented.
Individuals were selected from a pool of over 200 applicants, giving special priority to those living and working in countries of particular interest. They were paired with ENS national members and were given assistance to develop national level advocacy plans. Following the congress, the youth ambassadors continued to play an important voluntary role in supporting the ongoing work and running active ENS Youth Chapters in their countries. As an engagement exercise prior to the Youth Congress, ENS also attended and spoke at a session on statelessness at a European Youth Parliament conference in Leipzig.
4.2.3 Partnering youth ambassadors and ENS members in a coordinated series of national-level campaign actions
Based on the national advocacy plans submitted, different countries developed campaign actions to secure progress towards the main #StatelessKids campaign objectives, through a combination of awareness-raising activities, online advocacy and political lobbying, culminating in a pan-European coordinated day of action around 20 November 2016 (international Children’s Day). National level work increased the profile of statelessness more generally, encouraged greater engagement among stakeholders and children’s rights groups and demonstrated the impact that can be achieved through a dedicated day of action.
Some of the activities include:
- Collection and presentation of short stories illustrating the problems faced by stateless children
- Preparation of short briefings and materials to support advocacy and campaigning
- Production of multimedia pieces highlighting the issue
- Organising national stakeholder roundtables
- Press work to mark the dedicated day of action on/around 20 November 2016
- Schools outreach work and targeted policy advocacy meetings
The impact of these, and other campaign activities, will be evaluated and this analysis will be used to inform a follow-up strategy to resource and continue advocacy at both a national and pan-regional level.
4.2.4 Legal advocacy – Utilising strategic litigation and the UN human rights mechanisms
Complementing these public-facing activities, the campaign also included several legal advocacy components, which will remain a priority for ENS’s continuing focus on addressing childhood statelessness. Together with Praxis and the European Roma Rights Centre, and under the auspices of the ENS pan-European litigation strategy, we filed a constitutional “initiative” (challenge) with the Constitutional Court of Serbia in January 2016. This challenge related to a provision allowing late birth registration in contradiction of Art 7(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The campaign strategy also included a concerted effort to highlight problems with regard to a child’s right to acquire a nationality in submissions to UN human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. To date, five joint submissions have been made with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and ENS members in Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Serbia and the UK.
The campaign has provided several important lessons to help inform ENS’s ongoing work, as well as potential initiatives to address childhood statelessness by organisations in other regions, including as part of an emerging global civil society coalition. Linking all these efforts is the need to create public and political space for effective reform through strong awareness-raising and social mobilisation, and to develop an integrated strategic response that builds on the growing knowledge base by disseminating it more widely. As a complement to this, there is a need to harness the power of social media and public engagement to create societal and political pressure to address childhood statelessness. it is imperative to tailor messaging to non-expert audiences and build communications around stories and facts, not abstract concepts.
In order to improve law, policy and practice at a domestic level there is a common need in all countries to engage and provide technical support to different government bodies, with a particular focus on (decentralised) authorities responsible for birth registration, population registration and nationality procedures, as well as on the judiciary. Linked to this, there is an onus to create opportunities – such as trainings, conferences and study visits – for peer-to-peer learning and sharing of good practices between countries, and to integrate statelessness components within existing training nexuses. This should be supplemented with enhanced legal advocacy, including to build stronger engagement in individual casework on childhood statelessness through the development of legal assistance, paralegal and strategic litigation projects targeting this issue. Likewise, more systematic reporting to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, National Human Rights Institutions and Ombudspersons, as well as other human rights mechanisms is required. Linked to this, there exists an opportunity to explore and develop avenues for direct interaction between persons affected by childhood statelessness (children/parents) and relevant regional and international bodies.
With the potential to help underpin all these efforts, is the development and implementation of National Action Plans adopted under the auspices of UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign, to ensure that ending childhood statelessness is sufficiently prioritised. Equally, all these components could be greatly strengthened by consolidating efforts to engage regional and international child rights organisations, with advocacy and campaigning on the issue of ensuring all children’s right to a nationality.
1 By way of background, ENS’s first pan-European campaign to improve the protection of stateless persons in Europe was launched in October 2013. Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Statelessness Convention, this campaign brought together a broad spectrum of actors and aimed to put a human face on the statelessness issue in order to encourage more European states to accede to the 1954 Statelessness Convention and/or to introduce dedicated statelessness determination procedures. The campaign included an online petition (and short animation) which attracted over 7,000 signatures and culminated in a concerted day of action against statelessness across Europe on 14 October 2014 – more information is available here http://www.statelessness.eu/act-now-on-statelessness
2 Participants included lawyers, NGOs, child rights actors, academics, UNHCR, UNICEF, journalists, ombudspersons and representatives from the European Parliament and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. See http://www.statelessness.eu/sites/www.statelessness.eu/files/Budapest%20Participants%20List_final.pdf
3 See http://www.statelessness.eu/news-events/news/announcing-our-next-campaign-event-launch-our-report-no-child-should-be-stateless. The report launch was featured in an article by E Batha for Thomson Reuters. See E Batha, ‘European refugee crisis risks creating a generation of stateless children’ (20 September 2015), available at http://news.trust.org/item/20150920230231-jdujs/ and was picked up by various other news outlets across Europe.