Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’
More people are forcibly displaced in the world today than at any other time since World War II. A record number of 1.2 million forcibly displaced persons reached Europe during 2015 and the first months of 2016. This situation came to be labelled as a ‘refugee crisis’ and it has been the focus of fervent public and political debate. An issue that has attracted some attention on the margins of this debate has been the implications of this ‘refugee crisis’ for the picture of statelessness in Europe. In late 2015, for instance, the media warned that the region may be confronted with a ‘stateless generation’ of children born in exile. Several short publications have since considered this question .
Looking at the numbers, it appears that approximately 3% of asylum applicants in the EU in 2015 faced nationality problems. According to Eurostat data, 19,605 were recorded as being stateless and a further 22,140 were of “unknown citizenship”. Stateless persons, including Palestinians and stateless Kurds from Syria are among the recent arrivals in Europe. At the same time, 12 of the other 28 largest countries of origin of asylum applicants are either known to have a significant, existing stateless population or a gender discriminatory nationality law, or both. As such, statelessness may be a more significant problem in Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ than the Eurostat figures show, especially as displacement can also cause statelessness, in particular for the next generation.
The risk of statelessness for children born in Europe to Syrian refugee mothers is a clear example of this problem. Currently, roughly half of all refugees in Europe originate from Syria. While the nationality laws of all European states allow women to confer nationality to their children on equal terms with men, under the Syrian nationality law only fathers to transmit nationality to children born outside Syria. Due to the conflict in Syria, many children born in Europe may never get to see their fathers because the family has become separated or the father has been killed. Documentation of identity and of family relationships is also often lost when homes are destroyed or as people flee. Children born in Europe who cannot prove their descent from a Syrian father—or, indeed, whose father is unknown, for instance in the context of gender-based violence—face a significant risk of statelessness. While it receives less attention, the same scenario would also play out for a child born to a refugee who holds the nationality of another country which restricts women’s rights to confer nationality to their children.
An obvious implication of this interaction between statelessness and the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is that organisations engaged in statelessness work in the region are confronted with new cases, issues and questions. At the same time, organisations engaged in refugee and migrant assistance may find that nationality and statelessness issues are affecting the individuals and families who they are helping. Governments are also asking new questions about the implications of statelessness for their asylum and migration system, with statelessness now demanding a place in law and policy debate, including at the EU level – as discussed in the next section.
Strengthening national protection frameworks
Protecting stateless persons in a migration context requires a dedicated law and policy framework. Statelessness determination procedures (SDPs), in particular, serve to identify statelessness and are thus essential in ensuring stateless persons enjoy the rights to which they are entitled until they acquire a nationality. Without their statelessness identified there is no route by which stateless migrants who do not qualify for asylum or another form of international protection can regularise their status. This leaves them at risk of a range of rights violations and can expose stateless migrants to long term destitution and/or immigration detention. At present, countries in Europe take varying approaches to the identification of statelessness, but there is a clear trend towards the adoption of dedicated frameworks and the strengthening of national protection systems. France, has the oldest identification mechanism and has been recognising and protecting stateless persons since the 1950s. Later, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, and Spain all created statelessness determination mechanisms. More recently, Moldova (2011), Georgia (2012), the United Kingdom (2013), Kosovo (2015), Turkey (2016) and Bulgaria (2016) have all established SDPs. At the time of writing, legislation was in the pipelines in the Netherlands. Civil society advocacy and litigation efforts are also ongoing, with a view to strengthening the effectiveness of these national frameworks. An important achievement in this regard was a Constitutional Court ruling in Hungary in February 2015 which struck down the requirement in the Hungarian SDP framework that an applicant for recognition as a stateless person must already be lawfully staying in the country.