Human rights and stateless children
Every year, more than 70,000 children in the world are born into statelessness. These children are subject not only to a violation of the right to nationality, but also to violations of other fundamental human rights deriving from it. The right to a nationality is protected under international law and recognized in key international human rights instruments. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is particularly important when it comes to the protection of children’s right to nationality, because it explicitly obligates States to implement this right, in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination and the child’s best interests. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the UN Secretary General have all addressed the right to a nationality and the avoidance of statelessness in several resolutions and reports dealing with the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, including its impact on children, and discrimination against women regarding nationality-related matters.
2. Impact of statelessness and arbitrary deprivation of nationality on children’s rights
The arbitrary deprivation of nationality for children not only constitutes in itself a human rights violation, but it also exacerbates the difficulties encountered by these children, particularly when deprivation of nationality leads to statelessness. There is no legal basis upon which states can justify the denial of human rights to a child on grounds of statelessness.
Indeed, with the exception of certain specific rights, such as the right to vote, entitlement to human rights is not premised on the nationality of the individual, but rather on human dignity. Nevertheless, various human rights have been practically compromised vis-à-vis to people without a nationality.
2.1 Right to an identity
As stated in the report of the Secretary-General on the impact of the arbitrary deprivation of nationality on the enjoyment of the rights of children (A/HRC/31/29), arbitrary deprivation of nationality undermines the right to identity, closely related to the right to a nationality. Deprivation of nationality places children in a situation of extreme vulnerability and also threatens the enjoyment of other rights linked to children’s identity, as the right to juridical personality, the right to a name and the right to equal protection. Birth registration is one of the means through which the right to an identity is preserved. Unfortunately, stateless children are more likely to face barriers in their access to birth registration.
2.2 Right to education
Although statelessness should have no stand on the enjoyment of the right to education, it does limit children’s access to education opportunities. As they grow into adulthood, this consequently limits children’s opportunities in the job market and exposes them to dangerous and exploitative work.
2.3 Right to health
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits discrimination in access to healthcare. In spite of this prohibition, stateless children face discrimination in their enjoyment of the right to health, usually due to lack of documentation. Frequently, in order to treat children, even for vaccination, heath facilities need to be provided with documentation proving the nationality of the patient. Other impediments also hinder children’s right to health, such as higher medical costs for non-nationals and travel restrictions for undocumented patients.
2.4 Other human rights
Children who are stateless and/or deprived of their nationality also encounter obstacles in the enjoyment of their right to private and family life, to freedom of movement and to an adequate standard of living, because their right to enter a State and reside in its territory is limited. Children who have been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality are also more vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual exploitation and military recruitment. In the context of migration or forced displacement, stateless children are exposed to arbitrary and lengthy immigration detention procedures, which often destabilise their psychological and physical well-being, compromise their cognitive development and might also constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
3. Safeguards against childhood statelessness
Gaps in domestic laws, in particular substantive and procedural conditions required to benefit from safeguards as well as discrimination on different grounds are among the most widespread barriers to access to nationality for children who would otherwise be stateless. For this reason, states should ensure that comprehensive safeguards to prevent statelessness are incorporated in their nationality laws and implemented in practice, without being subject to unreasonable conditions.
International human rights law guarantees the right of every child to acquire a nationality and prohibits arbitrary deprivation of nationality. While states may exercise discretion in determining the rules of access to nationality, such rules must comply with principles of international human rights law, in particular the best interests of the child and non-discrimination.
Arbitrary deprivation of nationality places children in a situation of increased vulnerability to human rights violations. Where children have been, in contravention of international law, arbitrarily deprived of their nationality and rendered stateless, states must ensure that effective and appropriate remedies are available, including reinstatement of nationality. States should become party to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, and fully implement relevant international human rights instruments, such as the CRC.
Furthermore, as required by Target 16.9 of the Sustainable Development Goals, States should ensure legal identity for all, meaning that the birth of every child within their national borders should be registered immediately, especially if lack of registration may lead to statelessness. Statelessness and the different human rights violations caused thereby are a man-made problem. With the concerted effort of the international community, statelessness can be prevented so that millions of children and adults can live a full and dignified life.