The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion was founded in late 2014 to fill what we saw to be a worrying gap in the global civil society landscape: no other NGO was dedicated to the task of helping to address situations of statelessness worldwide. Our vision is of a world in which statelessness and disenfranchisement are ended through the promotion of human rights, participation and inclusion. It is this vision, shared by all members of our team, which motivates us and drives everything we do as an organisation. We take our commitment to any and all aspects of this issue very seriously. One of the challenges which has perhaps most captured our imagination and our hearts since the Institute’s establishment is that of tackling childhood statelessness. The decision to focus this edition of our flagship report on the world’s stateless children was readily made.
There are a plethora of reasons why the situation of stateless children is so compelling, not least the innocent and brief, yet formative, nature of childhood itself. No child chooses, or ever deserves, to be left without the protection of a nationality. If this is not remedied quickly and decisively, statelessness may leave a profound and potentially indelible mark on a child’s life. As Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discusses in her essay in this introductory chapter: to be stateless as a child can stunt opportunity, erode ambition and destroy the sense of self-worth. That we, the adults who set the rules for inclusion and exclusion, allow this to occur is – in the words of Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, interviewed in Chapter 8 – “shameful”. Childhood statelessness need never happen, it can be avoided. Yet it has been estimated that a child is born stateless every 10 minutes.
As the multitude of essays gathered in Part Two of this report testify, the fight to realise every child’s right to a nationality is one which people have taken up all across the globe – and in a wide array of contexts. A child may be left stateless due to the failure to tackle inter-generational exclusion, as a result of gender discrimination in nationality laws, because his or her mother was incarcerated at the time of the birth, as a consequence of the failure to regulate the complex questions which international commercial surrogacy throws up with respect to legal parentage, in the context of conflict and displacement which interrupts access to civil registration, as an unintended by-product of the lack of harmonisation of nationality rules and practices globally – or indeed in many other circumstances. That the root of the problem can be so different and that childhood statelessness is often a result of indifference rather than malevolence, makes it a truly fascinating and confronting phenomenon. At the same time, there is a captivating universality to this problem which is evident in listening to the questions or testimonies of stateless children: wherever they are in the world and whatever the cause of their plight, there is a common experience of loss and frustration. As documentary photographer Greg Constantine reflects in his contribution to this introductory chapter, the world’s stateless children represent “a wealth of amazing contributions to society denied”.
The incentive for focusing efforts on promoting children’s right to a nationality is also a pragmatic one. the disconnection between the recognition of nationality as a fundamental child right and the reality of childhood statelessness presents a massive challenge, but it equally opens up a wealth of opportunities. Childhood statelessness should be entirely preventable. It is never a child’s “fault” if they are left without nationality, nor is it ever in a child’s best interests to be stateless. By focusing on children, we can try to move towards desensitising the issue of nationality, focusing on the future (i.e. on including a new generation, leaving historical animosities in the past) and halting the spread of statelessness. Not only does this allow us to protect children who are born today from marginalisation and from a life in limbo, it also helps to lay the groundwork for more comprehensive solutions in the longer term.
Ultimately, the Institute’s profound sense of responsibility towards promoting inclusion for the world’s stateless children in particular is also a product of who makes up our team. In the relatively short time that has elapsed since the Institute was founded, we have celebrated two marriages and the birth of two new babies within our midst. Through the involvement of interns and trainees in our work, we are also happily surrounded by students and recent graduates: young adults who are seizing the opportunity to further their education, dip their foot in the labour market and pursue their ambitions. Moreover, our team is truly multinational and were it not for our nationalities – our passports – it is doubtful whether we would have had the opportunity to work together or indeed to travel and collaborate with others in our efforts to promote solutions to statelessness around the world. In such an environment, it isn’t difficult to imagine how profoundly different each of our lives would be if we had been denied nationality. For those of us who are watching our young children grow and their characters develop, it isn’t difficult to empathise with the parents of stateless children who want nothing more than to give them a fair start in life but are so often powerless to do anything about their situation.
We hope that the ideas, knowledge and experiences gathered in Part Two of this report will help to inspire and inform further efforts to improve the lives of stateless children and realise the right of every child to a nationality.