Syrian children born in exile are facing a real threat of statelessness: a condition once described as “a punishment more primitive than torture.” To be stateless is to be stripped of state protection and rights, to be left vulnerable to discrimination and marginalization.
Broadly speaking, a “stateless person” is someone who is not recognized as a national by any state and consequently has no nationality or citizenship. Despite the “right to nationality” (stipulated in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) being introduced in international law in response to the scale of displacement and denationalization following the Second World War, statelessness continues to be a global problem with estimates that at least ten million people worldwide (including several hundred thousand in Europe) have no nationality. It is estimated by the UNHCR that a child is born stateless every 10 minutes.
Statelessness results from various circumstances. While many individuals inherit this status from their parents, others become stateless due to gaps in nationality laws; the lack of birth registration; or as a result of discrimination against minority groups, as in the case of at least twenty countries which are able to deny or withdraw nationality on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion.
Although refugees are not automatically stateless given the assumed temporary nature of asylum, the risk of statelessness increases over time. In the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, the drawn-out conflict carries these long-term implications with it. As The Guardian reports, there is a real danger that the crisis and responses to the issue will compound a “hidden problem of statelessness” and engender a “stateless generation” of children.
The conflict in Syria has resulted in more than four million refugees moving into neighboring states and more than 50,000 Syrian children have been born “in exile” since the start of the conflict in 2011. The risks of these children becoming stateless are exacerbated by the nature of Syrian law. Syrian nationality law is gender-discriminatory, as nationality can only be passed to a child through proving the nationality of the father. For Syrian babies born outside the country, it is of paramount importance to acquire a birth certificate that records the father’s name. It is estimated, however, that 25% of Syrian refugee households are fatherless due to many fathers being dead, missing, or separated from their families.
Moreover, the likelihood of children being born without proper identification is compounded by how many families’ identification documents have expired, or become lost or destroyed during the conflict, as well as the challenging practicalities of registering children during times of displacement. In Lebanon, where there are estimated to be over 1 million Syrian refugees, reports of concerns over the (lack of) registration of Syrian newborns are extensive. In a survey undertaken in 2014, UNHCR found that 72% of Syrian newborns did not possess an official birth certificate, and the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that 92% of Syrian refugees interviewed were unable to complete the legal and administrative process to register their children’s births in Lebanon.
It is not only children born in neighboring countries that face statelessness. Those born in Europe are facing a similar scenario. As the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) reports, despite the ratification by European countries of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges governments under international law to fulfil the right of every child to acquire a nationality, childhood statelessness persists throughout Europe. Due to a limited number of European countries adequately adopting this principle into domestic law, states are failing to uphold this commitment. As found by the EU Democracy Observatory on Citizenship (EUDO-citizenship) database on protection against statelessness, evaluation of national legislation revealed that only 18 out of 42 European states’ safeguards to grant citizenship to otherwise stateless children are meeting international standards. In addition to not meeting these international legal requirements, statelessness is further exacerbated by poor implementation, a common example being the lack of a statelessness determination procedure.
To understand why these shortfalls remain, it is necessary to look at preferences in nationality laws. Throughout the world, there are two central logics governing how citizenship should be determined: “by birth” (jus soli) or “by blood” (jus sanguinis). While jus soli is premised on granting citizenship to individuals born within the territory of the country, jus sanguinis favors a descent-based approach to nationality.
Although this distinction between defining citizenship in terms of either place of birth or heritage is usually less clear in practice given that states’ citizenship laws combine features of both types, Europe has a long-standing preference for the jus sanguinis principle. It is this preeminence of a descent-based approach that has severe repercussions regarding statelessness in Europe for where individuals are born is of less significance. The predominance of jus sanguinis is epitomized by Germany and Denmark whose “safeguards against statelessness” are, according to the EUDO-Citizenship database, “limited to persons who are lawfully resident in the country.” Consequently, once the “protection” of refugee-status ceases, thousands of Syrian children will be legally stateless, with the result that there is no guarantee to prove their Syrian nationality and secure their return to the country. Indeed, the ENS has called on European countries to close such loopholes to avoid this outcome. As Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, states:
The automatic granting of citizenship at birth to children who would otherwise be stateless, is…the best tool to eradicate statelessness at birth and prevent its transmission from generation to generation.
Europe’s track-record, however, is by no means reassuring, as demonstrated by the high numbers of stateless children in Latvia following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the problems facing the Roma community and other minority groups after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. These cases are not only revealing in terms of the persistence of statelessness throughout Europe (as well as globally), but also highlight the ever-increasing urgency to address the issue.
As the UNHCR has reported after speaking to over 250 stateless children, the negative psychological impact of statelessness is far-reaching. Statelessness does not only render an individual a “legal ghost” by preventing access to education, healthcare, work, the national justice system, or property ownership. Many children described themselves as “invisible,” an “alien,” as a person “living in a shadow.” Certainly, these bureaucratic borders of exclusion leave individuals more vulnerable to exploitation. As Lama Fakih of Amnesty International has commented on the increasing number of stateless children in Lebanon, the lack of opportunities for these marginalized individuals are likely to increase their susceptibility to crime and radicalization.
Whilst there is no simple solution to the problem given the sheer number of children born in exile, it is evident that although gender-discriminatory nationality laws need to be reformed (as pledged by the UNHCR’s campaign, #IBelong), European states also need to uphold the commitment to provide citizenship for children who will otherwise be stateless. Although the temporary status of asylum provides some semblance of security and stability in the interim, once these individuals cease to be refugees, many will become legally stateless. There is a great danger that we will witness the emergence of a generation of children trapped in stateless limbo, both unable to remain in their asylum countries and unable to return to their countries of origin. As Mohammad, a Syrian refugee and father of three undocumented children stated in an interview to UNHCR, “One day we will return to Syria. But how can we if I have no way to prove my children are Syrian?”
Born in Singapore but raised in Britain, Fiona Wong completed her Bachelor of Science in Politics with International Relations at the University of Bath, before recently finishing her M.A. in European Politics, Policy and Society at the University of Bath, Univerzita Karlova v Praze and Università degli Studi di Siena. She currently lives and works in Tuscany, and is seeking an opportunity to further explore identity politics, immigration, and asylum policy. Her Twitter is @caipirinha27.