Born without statehood: what it means to be stateless

Government is being urged to grant citizenship to stateless minors born in Malta, whose laws deny them citizenship despite being born in our land

Maltese citizenship law leaves open the possibility for children to be born stateless in Malta
Maltese citizenship law leaves open the possibility for children to be born stateless in Malta

Kafil, a 30-year-old refugee born to Rohingya Muslims, who have been described as the most persecuted people in the world, has all but given up on becoming Maltese. 

“I know there is no prospect for citizenship here. I know many people who have been here for a very long time and still they don’t have Maltese citizenship,” Kafil says.

His story is one of those documented in the 2014 UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Mapping Statelessness in Malta report, which was recently presented to MPs in Valletta. 

Former MPs are calling on justice minister Owen Bonnici to “seriously consider granting Maltese citizenship to stateless minors born in Malta.” In a resolution tabled on their behalf in Parliament by the Speaker last month, the assembly of former MPs called on Bonnici to use his discretionary powers to grant citizenship to stateless children born in Malta “under such terms, requirements and conditions as he may deem fit, including those conditions currently applicable to stateless adults born in Malta.”

Maltese citizenship law leaves open the possibility for children to be born stateless in Malta. 

Most such cases involve parents who are non-nationals and either stateless themselves or unable to confer their citizenship. The UN agency has long called on Malta to adjust its domestic legislation to ensure that children born stateless in Malta are granted citizenship automatically at birth, in line with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The UNHCR has also recommended that “in order to avoid exposing children to the risk of statelessness, Malta should ensure that birth registration is carried out for all children born in Malta, regardless of the migrant status of the parents or their lack of documentation. 

In its latest call to have Malta sign the two Statelessness Conventions, namely the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the UNHCR delivered an information package on statelessness to parliament’s Speaker, Anglu Farrugia, and MPs. 

Malta is one of only four EU countries which are yet to sign any of the statelessness conventions. The UNHCR wants Malta to become a party to these conventions in order to protect stateless persons, and prevent and reduce statelessness.

It also recommended that Malta should put in place a statelessness determination procedure which would ensure the identification of such persons in the country. “Malta should ensure the basic rights of stateless persons found within the country.” 

Rohingya refugees inside a camp. They are amongst the most persecuted people in the world
Rohingya refugees inside a camp. They are amongst the most persecuted people in the world

No data on stateless people in Malta

The UNHCR is also calling on the National Statistics Office and other relevant authorities to collect accurate data about stateless people living in Malta. Some 400,000 stateless persons are found in the EU and research shows that stateless persons are also found in Malta, albeit not in large numbers. 

There is no data on how many stateless people currently live in Malta but according to the EUDO Observatory on Citizenship, 94 stateless persons obtained citizenship in Malta between 1991 and 2008. 

The persons who are or may be stateless in Malta – whether born in Malta or who arrived in Malta later in life – who have been identified by the UNHCR, include Kurds (especially those from Turkey and Syria); Palestinians; Soviets; Southern Africans; Rohingyas; Crimean Tatars and children of mixed Ethiopian/Eritrean origins. 

Children born or found on migrant vessels in international waters and later brought to Malta also face statelessness as do people in Malta born outside their parents’ country of origin and for whom no birth registration was done or for whom no registration of nationality (where necessary) took place with the authorities of the parents’ country.

‘My mental health is getting worse’ 

Statelessness can mean a life without education, without medical care, or legal employment. It can mean a life without the ability to move freely, without prospects, or hope. 

Alem and Freweini (not their real names), twin sisters who reached Malta in 2011, were among the stateless people interviewed by the UNHCR in 2014.

Born in Ethiopia around 1985 to an Ethiopian mother and an Eritrean father, their births were never registered. 

The women have been told that their father travelled to Eritrea when they were about one year old and he passed away there, leaving their mother to raise them and their siblings in Ethiopia. 

Alem says “once grown up, we realised that without documentation, we could not work legally. Without information about my father’s origins, it was impossible to pursue Eritrean documentation and we were struggling under the discrimination faced in Ethiopia and the fact that we were continually refused acknowledgement and documentation.”

Her sister adds “I do not have documentation in Malta and I did not have it in Ethiopia. I cannot work and my mental health is getting worse. All I want is to be documented and offered some kind of assistance so that I can start building my life... perhaps even together with my children who are still with my mother in Ethiopia?”

If Malta creates a statelessness determination procedure, Freweini’s links with Ethiopia and Eritrea could be explored and in the event that no country recognises her as their national, such a determination procedure could grant Freweini a legal status as a stateless person and provide her with access to a protection framework. As things stand now, she has little hope for the future.

Quis, a Kurdish man and his Syrian wife, had two children in Malta. However, since Quis is stateless and his wife as a woman cannot pass on her nationality to children born abroad, the children are stateless. 

After reaching Malta in 2002, Quis married his wife two years later and their children were born in 2005 and 2008. 

“We really like life in Malta but the future is so uncertain and we do not have many rights here. After being paid children’s allowance for two years, the authorities informed us that this was a mistake and that we would have to repay it. And I have always paid taxes and national insurance and still I do not have the right to receive children’s allowance or unemployment benefits.”

Living in uncertainty 

Kadija (not her real name) was born in Eritrea in the mid-1980s. Her birth was not registered and when she was one year old, her father left to work as a soldier with the Eritrean army, which was waging war with Ethiopia.

One year later, her family settled in Ethiopia, only for her father to “disappear” in her early teens. 

“He just vanished. No one knew what had happened but it was not unusual for Eritreans to be arrested in Ethiopia at the time. My mother was unable to leave the house due
to her sickness and the fact that she was blind. Without the support of my parents, growing up as an Eritrean in Ethiopia without documents was difficult. Like mine, my mother’s birth was not registered so I did not have any evidence of my origins.” 

Without identification documentation, Kadija could not attend school or access free medical services. The local administration in her village persistently refused to issue her family with identity documents. 

“The only chance to be recognised by Eritrea was with my father’s help but there was no way for me to find out if he was alive and where he was. All I wanted was to have some recognition as a person, I did not want to be undocumented any more. When I was about 20 years old, I attempted to enter Eritrea. But it was to no avail. After having walked through the desert towards Eritrea with my brother for three days, other Eritreans told us that we would be arrested upon entry since we did not have any documentation, so we were forced to turn back.” 

After settling in Gondar in Ethiopia, Kadija married a Somali man who was also fleeing persecution in his country. 

But her brother was arrested and her husband continuously beaten up by the police. Not feeling safe in Ethiopia, Kadija and her husband were forced to flee the country, leaving behind their daughter and the rest of Kadija’s family, whom she has not been able to communicate with since her departure. In Sudan, the couple was forced to flee again to avoid the round up of undocumented foreigners. Kadija was too afraid to ask for documentation from either the Eritrean or the Ethiopian consular authorities in Sudan since she feared detention in either country. Once in Libya, Kadija was imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant but eventually released because she was due to give birth. The family managed to board a boat which was rescued and brought to Malta where they were granted international protection (Subsidiary). 

“The Eritreans see me as being Ethiopian and the Ethiopians believe I am Eritrean. My husband’s Somali acquaintances see me as of mixed ethnicity so I end up spending most of my time alone at our home.” 

After arriving in Malta in 2012, Kadija is safe but feels excluded by all of the migrant communities to which she would have normally been linked. 

Kadija’s future in Malta remains uncertain since she has no real prospect of confirming her claim to Eritrean or Ethiopian nationality or ever being granted Maltese nation

What is 'Statelessness'?

Definition of Statelessness: A person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.

Statelessness: A person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law
Statelessness: A person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law

Arriving irregularly and undocumented in Malta does not make a person stateless. Staying or working irregularly also does not make people stateless. 

In most cases, statelessness arises in the context of the dissolution of a country, e.g. after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, millions were left stateless throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia when they failed to acquire a nationality under the new nationality legislations. Twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of people in the region remain stateless. 

A more recent example is the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011. Parts of the population in the newly independent state of South Sudan remain at high risk of becoming stateless by virtue of being of mixed Sudanese-South Sudanese parentage, originating from border areas, or having resided in Sudan or in other countries for an extended period of time.