A stateless child is born every 10 minutes, largely because of discriminatory citizenship laws and violent conflict that has displaced millions of families across the globe, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a report to be released Wednesday.
As they grow older, stateless children are highly vulnerable to exploitation, drugs and hopelessness and permanent disenfranchisement, the report says. Many see no future for themselves. As Vikash, a stateless 23-year-old in Malaysia, interviewed by UNHCR said, “My entire life is a question mark.”
Statelessness, a condition that affects at least 10 million people — 3 million of them children — comes with many disadvantages. In many countries, stateless people may lack access to medical care, education and formal employment, and they may face societal discrimination. Some children interviewed by UNHCR were not eligible for vaccines; others could not survive on their own and were forced into prostitution.
“In the short time that children get to be children, statelessness can set in stone grave problems that will haunt them throughout their childhoods and sentence them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair,” the report said.
The problem is most visible in the Syrian refugee crisis, which has seen “more than 140,000 children born stateless in neighboring countries,” UNHCR spokesman Leo Dobbs told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. Often, families flee Syria suddenly, under shelling, preventing them from grabbing the documentation – including birth and marriage certificates – needed to prove citizenship.
Statelessness compounds the adversity facing such refugees, who are already prone to exploitation in their host countries. Without citizenship, they lack legal protections and fear they may not be able to return home. “One day we will return to Syria,” Mohammad, a 33-year-old Syrian father of three undocumented children, told UNHCR in an interview. “But how can we if I have no way to prove my children are Syrian?”
The biggest drivers of statelessness by far are discriminatory laws that deny citizenship on the basis of race, creed or gender, UNHCR says. In 27 countries, including Syria, women are not able to pass down citizenship to their children, meaning that if the child’s father has died or cannot be found, she or he is rendered stateless. More than one-quarter of the four million Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey live in female-headed households, often because the father was killed or chose to stay in Syria.
The UNHCR report is part of a campaign to reform such regressive citizenship laws and ensure that children are eligible for citizenship in their country of birth. Worldwide, a majority of countries “lack or have inadequate safeguards in their nationality laws to grant nationality to children born stateless in their territory,” the report said.
One of the most common gaps in such laws include inadequate provisions for children whose parents cannot be identified, or “foundlings.” Of the 700,000 stateless people in Cote d’Ivoire, for example, about 300,000 of them are foundlings.
In other cases, existing citizenship laws are simply ignored. For example, people of Haitian descent are routinely denied citizenship in the Dominican Republic, whose laws forbid racial discrimination. Last year, a Dominican court ruling stripped citizenship from an estimated 210,000 children and adults, whose parents are "irregular" Haitian immigrants.
In more than 30 countries, children who lack documentation of their citizenship cannot receive treatment at a health facility. In at least 20 countries, stateless children cannot receive vaccines. In others, including Cote d’Ivoire and Georgia, stateless children are not eligible for primary school or must pay a fee to attend school, UNHCR says.