The right of every child to a nationality and to have their birth registered immediately is clearly established in international law (for example, Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is binding for all European states). Birth registration is vital to establishing legal identity and preventing childhood statelessness. A birth certificate is essential evidence of a child’s family ties and helps to establish their nationality. However, barriers to the registration and/or certification of births to refugees in Europe are being reported. Many European countries also lack full legal safeguards in their nationality laws to prevent children from being born stateless on their territory. It is never in the best interests of a child to be left stateless, or to grow up without a nationality.


The evidence required to register a birth and the legal document given to parents as proof of birth registration vary in different European countries. In the case of children born to refugees in transit or exile, it can be very difficult for parents to meet the evidential requirements for birth registration. For example, they might not have proof of the exact time and place of birth if the child was born in a transit camp or at sea, or they may not have proof of their own identities if they are stateless, undocumented or do not have key documents in their possession. Most children will acquire a nationality from one or both of their parents by descent (known as ‘jus sanguinis’). This means that information about the nationality status of parents is essential for establishing the child’s nationality or potential risk of statelessness if parents are unable to confer a nationality to their child (for example, if they are stateless, unknown, unable to confer their nationality due to gender discrimination or conflicts in nationality laws).


Problematic birth registration practices have been reported in some countries that may be hiding a risk of statelessness among some children of refugees born in Europe (or in transit). For example, the failure of authorities to accurately identify and register  the nationality status of parents can mean that states are unaware or don’t accept that a child born on their territory may be stateless. Children may routinely be registered as having the same nationality as their parents without any examination of whether a parent can actually confer their nationality to the child. Stringent evidential requirements for birth registration, punitive fines and complicated court procedures for late registration or a legal duty on registry officials to report irregular migrants to immigration authorities, can all prevent parents from registering births. In some countries, births to refugees who can’t meet evidentiary requirements are not being included in the ordinary civil registry or parents are being given extracts from the registry that do not have the same legal effect as a birth certificate. Such practices all heighten the risk of childhood statelessness in Europe.

International law requires that states enact legal safeguards in their nationality laws to enable children who would otherwise be stateless to acquire the nationality of their country of birth. However, only around half of European countries have full safeguards in place, and even where safeguards do exist, these can only be implemented in practice if the child’s statelessness is identified. In some countries, problems arise because  the safeguard requires the child or a parent to have legal residence. In others it requires an application procedure. Officials and parents are often unaware of the legal safeguards and so opportunities to prevent childhood statelessness may be missed. It is never in the best interests of a child to be left stateless, or to grow up without a nationality.

Stera (12) and Mohamed (9) were born stateless in Europe. Even though they speak English like all their friends, they realise they are different as they do not have the same access to services as their peers. They do not have a nationality because their father is a stateless Kurd who fled Syria, and their mother is a Syrian national. Under Syrian nationality law, mothers can confer nationality only in exceptional cases: if the child was born in Syria and the father does not establish filiation in relation to the child. However, due to the stigma associated with having a child out of marriage, the exception is often not applied in practice.

(UNHCR ending childhood statelessness in Europe)

What more can be done?

  • Immediate, free and universal access to birth registration must be guaranteed for all children irrespective of the status of their parents in line with international law.
  • All children should be issued with a birth certificate establishing their legal identity and family links upon registration irrespective of their or their parents legal status or documentation.
  • All countries in Europe should enact full legal safeguards in nationality law to address all situations in which children may be born stateless on their territory; where partial safeguards are in place, these should be strengthened to prevent statelessness in all cases; and fully implemented in practice to guarantee the child’s right to a nationality.

Initiative led by:

European Network on Statelessness

The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) is a civil society alliance of over 170 non-governmental organisations, academics and individual experts in 41 countries, committed to addressing statelessness in Europe. ENS believes that everyone has the right to a nationality and that those who lack nationality altogether – stateless persons – are entitled to full protection of their human rights.