Resilience, Peace and Security

Why are refugee children growing up stateless in Europe?

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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The European refugee crisis could risk creating a new generation of stateless children unless countries close gaps in their nationality laws, experts said on Monday.

The warning came as the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) launched a campaign to stop children growing up stateless in Europe where an estimated 600,000 people have no nationality.

Stateless children are denied the basic rights most people take for granted, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. They often live in destitution without access to education and health services.

An ENS report, which analyses nationality laws in 47 European countries, says flawed laws and birth registration procedures mean thousands of children are growing up stateless across the continent.

It also highlights emerging concerns over the risk of statelessness to some children born in exile to Syrian refugees.

“Children are still being born stateless in Europe for a variety of reasons, but the current migrant crisis underlines the urgent need for European countries to reform nationality laws and birth registration procedures to ensure no child ends up stateless,” said the report’s co-author Laura van Waas.

More than 470,000 refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia have arrived in Europe this year. Around half are believed to be refugees from the Syrian war.

Van Waas said many families’ identification documents had been lost or destroyed during the war, exacerbating challenges in registering the births of children born in exile, particularly in countries neighbouring Syria.

Problems are compounded in cases where the father is absent or has been killed because discriminatory Syrian laws prevent mothers passing their nationality to their children.

An estimated 60,000 babies have already been born in exile in Council of Europe member Turkey, which is hosting some 2 million Syrian refugees.

Break-up of Soviet Bloc

ENS is calling on all countries in Europe to close loopholes so that any child born on their territory can acquire nationality if they would otherwise be stateless.

The report reveals that although all European countries have signed one or more international treaties which set out the right of every child to a nationality, only half have fully incorporated these obligations into domestic laws.

The campaign to end childhood statelessness feeds into a major U.N. initiative launched last year which seeks to eradicate statelessness within a decade.

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates 10 million people have no nationality and a baby is born stateless every 10 minutes.

The biggest stateless populations in Europe are hangovers from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Children continue to be born stateless to parents who failed to acquire a nationality after the disintegration of the bloc in the early 1990s. For example, there are around 7,800 stateless children in Latvia.

The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia created similar problems particularly for members of the Roma community, many of whom continue to face obstacles in acquiring nationality.

Elsewhere in Europe the problem is often related to migration, but no one knows how many stateless children there are in total, partly because some countries fail to clearly differentiate between stateless children and those of “unknown nationality”. Germany has over 9,000 children and teenagers of “unknown nationality”.

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation ( Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Emma Batha is a journalist specialising in humanitarian crises and women’s rights.

Image: A Syrian boy walks along a corridor inside a refugee camp in Harmanli. REUTERS/Pierre Marsaut.

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