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The Sensation of Invisibility

Although this is a worldwide issue (Goris et al. 2009), the scale of statelessness is difficult to calculate (UNHCR 2013) because estimates of statelessness contrast and often fluctuate. This variability is to some extent because of the heterogeneity of stateless persons and how they came to be stateless—for example, forced labor migration (Lynch and Teff 2009), war (Dona and Veale 2011), or choice (Lin 2012)—and in part because it proves rather challenging to calculate the number of people who are legally excluded. Often scholars equate statelessness with being a refugee (Southwick and Lynch 2009); however, although some stateless people are refugees, many have never crossed a border. In other words, many of the stateless, children in particular, lack a legal identity within their country of birth. Indeed, the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda highlights that:

One of the most basic institutional responsibilities [of government] is providing legal identity. Every year, about 50 million births are not registered anywhere, so these children do not have a legal identity. That condemns them to anonymity, and often to being marginalized.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), statelessness is estimated to affect at least 10 million people; however, most recent data from 2014 captured by governments and

Table 1 Stateless Persons by Region

UN major regions

Number of persons under UNHCR's statelessness mandatea

Total population of concern













Latin America and the Caribbean



Northern America









Source: Data from UNHCR 2015

aFor detailed notes, see Annex, Table 7 at WRD-table-7.xls

communicated to UNHCR set the figure at 3,492,263 stateless individuals (UNHCR 2015). This disparity in the reported figures reflects discrepancies in data collection thus highlighting the need for a standardized way of gathering data. Data shown in Table 1 refer to persons who are not considered to be nationals by any state under the operation of its law. This category refers to persons who fall under the agency’s statelessness mandate because they are stateless according to the international definition; however, data from some countries could also include persons with undetermined nationality.

There are stateless populations on every continent. Statelessness is particularly prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region (UNHCR 2014a), where UNICEF (2013b) estimates that about 30 % of children under five in the region are not registered (Ahmed 2010). Based on data relating to five of the largest statelessness situations in the world (UNHCR 2015), where there are no procedures in place to ensure that children do not inherit their parents’ plight, UNHCR estimates that globally, a baby is born stateless every 10 minutes.

In Europe, however, new cases of childhood statelessness are emerging at a far lower rate, and statelessness exists on a smaller scale (ENS 2014a, 2015). This is because of partial or full safeguards in place in most European countries. There are considerable variations in the apparent scale of the problem within European Union (EU) member states, making it problematic to extrapolate towards any general trends (ENS 2015). In Sweden, for instance, the Statistics Bureau’s data for 2014 accounts for a total of 8974 children registered as stateless. This figure would imply that Sweden hosts one of the largest number of stateless children in Europe. In Iceland, on the other hand, only 32 children are listed as stateless in the national population register.

In many other European countries, the extent of the problem is obscured by consolidated registration practices that fail to make a clear distinction between stateless children and those of unknown nationality—many of whom also may be stateless but are not identified as such. In Germany, where stateless and unknown nationality are not separated in published population statistics (Brubaker 1992), there are more than 9000 people in this category under the age of 20. Such a figure would imply a sizable number of stateless children in the country (ENS 2015). In the Netherlands, more than 800 children who were born there are recorded as stateless, but an even greater number of them are of unknown nationality. With regard to Hungary, each year more than 200 children have their nationality registered as unknown when their birth is recorded. Other European countries offer a fractional representation of the scale of the problem because of the paucity of available relevant data. For instance, in Poland, between 2004 and 2014, 71 stateless children acquired Polish nationality. In the United Kingdom, from 2001 until 2010, some 350 stateless children established British nationality.

A quarter of a century after dissolution of the former Soviet Union, statelessness continues to affect children in this region, with the most recent figures accounting for 7846 stateless children in Latvia and 936 in Estonia. Neither of these figures, however, include stateless children in the country whose situation is separate from these long-standing in situ populations. In the Ukraine, the 2001 population census recorded 17,517 children as stateless, but the overall number in the country has since diminished; it is not clear how many children are stateless in the Ukraine today. There are no statistics available for the number of children affected by statelessness in the Russian Federation—the last of the four states in Europe with the largest stateless populations.

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, state succession left problems of statelessness in its wake (ENS 2014b, 2015). UNHCR’s most recent statistics indicate that just over 10,000 people remain affected by or are at risk of statelessness across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (UNHCR 2015). The challenge in much of Southeastern Europe revolves, in particular, around the lack of access to documentation of birth and identity, leading to an inability to establish or confirm nationality. This lack of documentation especially impacts the Roma communities, where the number of children currently facing statelessness in this sub-region is not known.

In Italy it is noteworthy that many Roma migrated from the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans (Sigona 2005), and children endured difficulties asserting a claim to any nationality—again meaning that no overall data are available. Children living in Italy are stateless or at risk of statelessness because in most cases they lack a residence permit or other identity documents. As undocumented persons, they have no or limited access to social services, healthcare, education, employment, and housing as well as no political rights. They also risk receiving expulsion orders and being held in a detention center. Estimates provided by the NGO Comunita di Sant’Egidio (see account for almost 15,000 Roma children born in Italy who find themselves in a limbo of legal invisibility and without basic rights, even though their families have been living in Italy for decades. To this figure should be added the unaccounted number of children whose parents have chosen Italy as a transit migration country prior to reaching their final destination.

According to the Italian law on citizenship—particularly law no. 91/1992—children born in Italy to non-nationals who have not been recognized as stateless persons do not automatically acquire Italian citizenship at birth. In Italy, the right to citizenship at birth is governed by the jus sanguinis (i.e., literally right of the blood) principle, whereby the child of an Italian father or mother is automatically Italian. It is worth noting that Italian women have been able to pass on their citizenship to their minor children only since 1948 following a specific order passed by the Constitutional Court. Law no. 91/1992 attaches particular importance to individual resolve in acquiring or losing one’s citizenship and acknowledges one’s right to holding more than one citizenships concurrently, subject to the provision of international agreements.

As well as by birth—the minor child of an Italian national is automatically Italian—Italian citizenship can be acquired by virtue of being married to an Italian national, although after 1983 the foreign spouse of an Italian national does not automatically acquire Italian citizenship by virtue of marriage but he or she has to submit an application to obtain Italian citizenship by marriage. Furthermore, law no. 94/2009, concerning provisions in matters of “public security” brings about some changes in the existing citizenship law, with specific reference to the application of naturalization by virtue of marriage. In particular, the new legislation determines that the marriage must be valid and the spouses must be living together until the Oath of Allegiance is taken.

Italian citizenship also can be acquired by means of adoption if the foreign minor is adopted by an Italian national through an order of the relevant Italian Authority; and if the adoption is pronounced abroad and subsequently endorsed by means of an order, issued by the relevant Juvenile Court, requesting that it be registered in the registers of the Register Office. If the adoptee is over 18 years of age, he or she may acquire Italian citizenship by naturalization, provided the child has spent at least five years in Italy after the date of adoption. Italian citizenship also can be obtained by declaration of intent if the applicant is the descendant of an Italian national by birth (up to the second degree), completes military service with the Italian Armed Forces, is employed as a civil servant by the Italian Government abroad, and/or has been lawfully residing in Italy for two years before coming of age.

Finally, following the paternity or maternity acknowledgment, if the foreigner was born in Italy he or she may acquire Italian citizenship if the person has lawfully and uninterruptedly resided in Italy since birth until he or she comes of age. As will be discussed later, despite Italy having both an administrative and a judicial statelessness determination procedure that can result in granting a residence permit, in reality very few stateless persons actually receive this status. Indeed, statelessness tends to be transmitted intergenerationally because in many countries mothers and fathers who lack official identity documentation are unable to register their children’s births. Statelessness is more likely for children of parents involved in undocumented migration, in part because parents without identity documentation cannot obtain it for their children.

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