“I am European, but I am not a citizen of the country where I was born or of any other country.”

Aleksejs Ivashuk, Founder of Apatride Network

KEY ISSUES

  • Statelessness affects more than half a million people in Europe.
  • State succession, especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, has been a significant contributor to statelessness in Europe, where minorities have been particularly impacted. Inadequate safeguards in nationality laws – especially for children – and deliberate policies of deprivation of nationality also cause statelessness in Europe; and statelessness is an issue as well among refugees and migrants who come to Europe.
  • A growing number of states in Europe have introduced dedicated procedures to enable them to identify stateless people, determine stateless status, and provide for their rights, but most still lack effective national frameworks in spite of their international commitments to protect stateless people. 
  • Europe is the region that has seen the most significant number of law reforms to expand states’ nationality deprivation powers in a national security or counterterrorism context since the attacks of 9/11 in 2001.
  • The European Convention on Nationality and the 2006 Council of Europe Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in Relation to State Succession are dedicated regional instruments that provide a further normative framework for preventing cases of statelessness.
  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the Court of Justice of the European Union have dealt with cases related to the right to nationality and the protection of the rights of stateless individuals – clarifying, for instance, how the principles of non-discrimination, proportionality and the best interests of the child are to be applied in nationality matters.

STATELESSNESS IN EUROPE

Statelessness is a persistent and deeply rooted issue in the European region. Already in the early 20th century, the crumbling of empires, mass denationalisation and displacement in the context of two World Wars left large numbers of people without a nationality in Europe. Today, state succession, discrimination against minority groups, inadequate safeguards in nationality laws – especially for children – and deliberate policies of deprivation of nationality continue to create and perpetuate cases of statelessness across the region. Some refugees and migrants who come to Europe are also affected by statelessness – a factor that is often not adequately identified or addressed, leading to situations where people are stuck in limbo.

Statelessness is more comprehensively mapped in Europe than in any other region. UNHCR has statistical data on statelessness for 43 out of the 50 countries that fall within the scope of their European regional bureau, with the total figure in Europe at the end of 2023 reported as 458,070 people. While on first glance this seems like a huge decrease from the previous year's data, this is due to several states de-duplicating or otherwise cleaning up their data during 2023. Even though there is comparatively more complete data on statelessness in Europe, the figure is likely an underrepresentation of the actual number of stateless people. This is caused by diverging definitions and methodologies regarding the data and its collection, as well as lack of awareness or capacity to effectively identify statelessness. 

A growing number of states in Europe have introduced dedicated procedures to enable them to identify stateless people, determine stateless status, and provide for their rights. However, the majority of European states still lack effective national determination and protection frameworks, in spite of international commitments to protect stateless people. As a result, many stateless people in Europe face years of uncertainty and social exclusion, along with the threat of arbitrary detention. Safeguards to prevent statelessness at birth are also absent, limited in scope or ineffective in practice in many countries in Europe, and there have been insufficient measures in several countries with large stateless populations to resolve these cases of statelessness.

At the regional level new case law on statelessness is emerging, both from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in its application of the European Convention on Human Rights and from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) concerning the interpretation of European Union law. The jurisprudence of both courts has addressed issues relating to the right to a nationality; and the ECtHR has also dealt with both nationality rights cases and an array of cases involving the protection of the rights of stateless people.

STATE SUCCESSION AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST MINORITIES

Most of the cases of statelessness currently reported within Europe arose in the context of state succession in the 1990s. Approximately 70% of the region’s reported stateless population is concentrated in four former Soviet Union successor states: Latvia, the Russian Federation, Estonia, and Ukraine. Latvia hosts the largest stateless population (187,564 people at the end of 2022), as a product of Latvia's policy upon the restoration of independence in 1991 to grant nationality only to pre-1940 Latvian citizens and their descendants. Estonia imposed language and history tests for post-1940 residents after Soviet annexation, resulting in around 100,000 stateless individuals. In both states, these approaches led to the exclusion of members of the Russian-speaking minority population in particular. Those affected are granted certain rights and legal residency, but are not considered nationals.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia also generated many cases of statelessness, especially among Romani minorities in the Western Balkans. Systemic discrimination, barriers to accessing justice and heavily bureaucratic administrative procedures operate together to continue and perpetuate challenges for Roma to establish their citizenship. The problem is intergenerational: Roma families are trapped in a cycle where the parents’ lack of nationality and documentation obstructs the registration at birth of their children, who then have no means of proving their entitlement to citizenship. The number of people reported to be affected has been falling: the six states emerging from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia reported a total of nearly 10,000 stateless persons in 2015, decreasing to 4,237 by the end of 2022. Many others still face the risk of statelessness due to documentation challenges, remaining gaps in legal frameworks and systemic antigypsyism – and there remain gaps in data coverage on this issue. Statelessness also affects Roma outside the Western Balkans, including in Italy (where many Roma have ties to the former Yugoslavia) and in Ukraine. Statelessness has been shown to heighten the risk of other forms of exclusion and rights violations for Romani communities during times of crisis, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the context of conflict-induced displacement following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

STATELESSNESS IN A MIGRATORY CONTEXT 

In some cases, people who were already stateless in their country of origin arrive in Europe within the mixed migration flows, as refugees, victims of human trafficking or migrants. With the increase in 2015 of migrants and refugees into Europe, the number of stateless people in some receiving states increased: “of the four million people who applied for asylum in the EU in 2015-2018, more than 115,000 were recorded as ‘stateless’, of ‘unknown nationality’, or their nationality was recorded as ‘Palestine’ [and] many more refugees come from countries with problematic nationality laws, such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea or Sudan, meaning they or their children are at risk of statelessness”. In other cases, people may experience citizenship problems and become stateless during their migration/refugee journey, or following their arrival due to the loss or deprivation of nationality while they are away from their country. Children born in Europe to migrant or refugee parents can sometimes be exposed to statelessness because of discriminatory nationality laws of the country of origin or a conflict of nationality laws and gaps in protection against statelessness in European host countries. Children born in transit to Europe, or in the destination country, can also be at risk of statelessness due to barriers to birth registration.

Statelessness is often not identified or adequately addressed in the context of asylum and migration procedures, leaving stateless refugees and migrants vulnerable to rights violations in the context of accessing international protection, birth registration, family reunification and naturalisation. Stateless people in Europe can also repeatedly end up in detention because of the absence of appropriate procedures and frameworks. Where a stateless person is locked up and “simply left to languish for months and years”, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found this to be in violation of the right to liberty and security of the person.

CHILDHOOD STATELESSNESS

The principle of jus sanguinis (conferral of nationality based on descent) dominates legal frameworks across the region, fostering an “assumption that children born to non-European nationals in Europe should be citizens of elsewhere, leaving some of those children at risk of statelessness”. Indeed, less than half of states in Europe have adequate safeguards to realise the child’s right to a nationality by granting citizenship to children born in their territory who would otherwise be stateless – causing thousands of children to be born stateless in the region each year. Where such provisions do exist in the law, there are also problems with implementation, especially where statelessness is not adequately identified.

There have been some law and policy improvements in the region, including greater protections for adopted children, children born on the territory who would otherwise be stateless, and to ensure greater equality among parents in conferring nationality to their child. Several countries have reduced restrictions on fathers transmitting citizenship to their children out of wedlock, recognized new forms of partnership and parental relations, and extended opportunities for access to citizenship by certain descendants of former citizens. For example, in 2021, a Spanish court granted Spanish nationality to a stateless child who was born while en route from Morocco to Spain to a Cameroonian mother. In other cases, the implementation of positive, rights-based judgements remains an issue. For instance, although the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in 2021 that the baby of a married lesbian couple should be issued a birth certificate (even though Bulgaria only recognizes marriages between a man and woman), the Supreme Administrative Court of Bulgaria subsequently rejected the baby’s claim to a birth certificate on the basis that she is not a Bulgarian citizen (i.e. refusing to acknowledge the bond between the parent and the child for the purposes of the right to nationality). 

NATIONALITY DEPRIVATION

Deprivation of nationality remains a major challenge to protecting the right to a nationality in Europe. With the fall of IS caliphate, and so-called ‘foreign fighters’ from Europe seeking to return to their home countries, a number of states adopted or broadened nationality deprivation powers in a national security or counterterrorism context. Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are among them. A longitudinal study of how deprivation powers evolved globally between 2000 and 2022 concluded that “Europe is the epicentre of the expansion of security-based deprivation powers”, with 18 countries introducing new grounds for deprivation of nationality since the terror attacks of 9/11 in the United States in 2001. Austria, for instance, passed an amendment to the Law on Citizenship, expanding the applicable offences for nationality deprivation to include financing terrorist activities or travel for terrorist purposes. And despite clear international norms on the avoidance of statelessness, not all states expressly state in their law that deprivation of nationality in a national security context may not result in statelessness. 

Litigation of cases involving deprivation of nationality has yielded mixed results. In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in the case of Usmanov v. Russia that the decision to revoke the nationality of a naturalized Russian citizen violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and concluded that removing the applicant from the country on the basis that he represented a “national security risk,” was disproportionate and unnecessary. The ECtHR also found a violation of Article 8 in the case of Huseynov v. Azerbaijanincluding because “the court domestic authorities had given no heed to the fact that the termination of his citizenship would render him a stateless person”. Domestic courts have also overturned nationality deprivation decisions in a number of cases. The Irish Supreme Court even found that the Minister’s power to revoke citizenship under the Irish Nationality Act was unconstitutional because it fails to provide procedural safeguards, requiring additional processes in place for deprivation. However, the ECtHR did not find a violation in the case of Johansen v. Denmark, who was stripped of his Danish nationality for a terrorism charge; nor in the case of Ghoumid and Others v. France, holding that the revocation of their French nationality was not a violation of their human rights because they were convicted of a terrorist offense. 

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has also ruled on a number of cases involving loss, deprivation and renunciation of nationality. In the Rottmann case, the CJEU held that it is possible to deprive a person of nationality if this obtained by fraud, even if it results in statelessness and the loss of EU citizenship, but the decision must always observe the principle of proportionality. Relatedly, the CJEU has ruled that because the loss of nationality must respect the principle of proportionality, this requires an individual assessment of the consequences of that loss for the person – which may affect the operation of rules that provide for automatic loss of nationality. The CJEU has also found that refusing to grant nationality to someone who had already renounced another nationality, and would therefore be left stateless and lose EU citizenship, is disproportionate according to EU law.

REGIONAL STANDARDS AND COMMITMENTS 

In Europe, most States are parties to the UN Statelessness Conventions, although significant gaps remain in the implementation of these commitments – both in relation to the identification and protection of stateless people, and the avoidance of statelessness. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) enshrines human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone within the territory of Europe, including stateless people, and is overseen by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). There are numerous cases in which stateless people have succeeded in appealing to the Court to address a human rights violation suffered, including in relation to discrimination in the enjoyment of pension rights, arbitrary detention and the identification and protection for stateless people. Although the ECHR does not explicitly affirm the right to a nationality, the ECtHR has also repeatedly recognised nationality as a part of one's social identity, meaning that it is protected under the right to private life (article 8 ECHR). The Court has used this approach to rule on cases focusing on non-discrimination and the best interests of the child in nationality access, as well as on deprivation of nationality.

To date, Europe is the only region to adopt its own dedicated and detailed convention on nationality: the 1997 European Convention on Nationality. The Convention builds on the 1961 Statelessness Convention but also aims to “consolidate into a single text the new ideas which have emerged as a result of developments in internal and international law”. The separate 2006 Council of Europe Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in Relation to State Succession sets out more detailed rules to prevent cases of statelessness in the context of state succession. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has adopted a number of Resolutions on nationality and statelessness issues, including a 2016 Resolution on the need to eradicate statelessness of children and a 2019 Resolution on withdrawing nationality as a measure to combat terrorism. The Council of Europe’s European Committee on Legal Co-Operation (CDCJ) also undertakes work on statelessness and access to nationality. 

The European Union (EU) has its own human rights document, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the rights contained in which apply to everyone in the EU, regardless of nationality. The EU has also established the status of “EU Citizenship”, held by anyone who is a national of one of the 27 EU member states. While these individual member states retain autonomy over nationality laws, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) mandates compliance with EU law in cases of EU citizenship loss or acquisition. As such, recent CJEU rulings have directed countries to consider individual circumstances when revoking nationality, emphasizing proportionality. These cases indicate the EU's potential influence on member states' nationality policies, including the prevention of statelessness. Various EU level initiatives are also relevant to nationality and statelessness, including: the European Council’s Conclusions on Statelessnessthe EU Roma Framework for Equality, Participation, and Inclusion and the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child.  

 

[Last updated January 2024]

Cover image by Joss Woodhead @unsplash

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