Hammarberg: Stateless people in Europe need extra protection

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg

Hundreds of thousands of stateless people in Europe need extra protection, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg has said.

Having a nationality is a basic human right – so basic that it amounts to a “right to have rights,” Mr. Hammarberg said.

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there are about 589,000 stateless people in Europe.

“Some stateless people are refugees or migrants, having left their countries of origin. Others live in their home country but are not recognised as citizens. The plight of the stateless, who are estimated to number 12 million worldwide, has received limited attention in recent years and seems to be little understood,” Mr. Hammarberg said.

He observed that stateless people are often marginalised. “When they lack birth certificates, identity cards, passports and other documents, they risk being excluded from education, healthcare, social assistance and the right to vote. A stateless person may not be able to travel or work legally,” Mr. Hammarberg said.

Stateless people also grapple with inequality and discrimination – and with a heightened risk of being perceived as irregular.

Mr. Hammarberg said that while the number of people who have been granted full citizenship rights in Latvia and Estonia has increased in the recent years, large numbers of residents remain non-citizens.

Many others have “been provided with personal identity documents which enable them to travel and work more easily. But non-citizens, even those who were born in the country, are still not granted the right to vote in national elections,” Mr. Hammarberg said.

A great number of stateless persons in Europe are Roma, particularly in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia. Some, who have moved from that region to other parts of Europe, are living as de facto stateless since they lack personal documents and live in legal uncertainty. There are approximately 15,000 persons in this situation in Italy. The exclusion and marginalisation that Roma persons already experience is compounded by the lack of effective nationality.

“Children should not be denied their right to a nationality just because their parents are stateless,” Mr. Hammarberg said. “The host country has an obligation to ensure that children have citizenship. Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulate that children shall have the right to acquire a nationality. Children who would otherwise be stateless should be granted the nationality of the host state.”

The Council of Europe has adopted two highly relevant treaties to guide a rights-based approach towards nationality and statelessness. However, these have not been widely ratified. Only 20 Council of Europe member states have ratified the 1997 Convention on Nationality, and only five states have so far ratified the 2006 Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in relation to State Succession.

Mr. Hammarberg urged all member states to sign and ratify these conventions as well as the two UN treaties. “It is crucial that states bind themselves legally to respect these agreed standards,” he said.

“Not having a nationality is to be marginalised, not to belong. Many stateless persons have little possibility to make themselves heard and are in many cases silenced by fear of discrimination. The most important thing is that governments, ombudsmen, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organisations take action to defend their rights,” Mr. Hammarberg said.