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Access to citizenship and the Sustainable Development Goals

In a policy brief prepared by the European Network on Statelessness last May, in preparation of the High-Level Political Forum of 9-18 July where the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda will be reviewed, the relation between access to citizenship and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is examined.

Emphasizing that it is often through citizenship that one can access basic rights like education, health care and social security, the policy brief submits that two main considerations regarding access to citizenship arise:

1) How to ensure that those without access to any citizenship can contribute to and benefit from global sustainable development efforts;

2) How sustainable development efforts can produce new ways to ensure that everyone has access to citizenship.

The policy brief aims to assess how access to citizenship is relevant to the six SDGs (out of a total of seventeen SDGs) that will be the focus of the Forum:

SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all;

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;

SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries;

SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and impacts;

SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels;

SDG 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

For each of the goals the policy brief explains what to consider and what the standards are under international law, which countries can be taken as an example for having implemented good practices, and how the particular SDG links to other SDGs.

One such good example is the establishment of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure, which is absent in most countries – even those who have ratified the 1954 and 1961 UN Statelessness Conventions. Another example relates to the likely disappearance of certain (Pacific) islands due to climate change. While FCI already raised the question if countries have an obligation to provide a safe haven for climate change victims, the policy brief shows that the islands themselves are also taking anticipatory measures, noting that already in 2014, “acknowledging the likely disappearance of the territory of Kiribati in the future, the then President began to develop a relocation strategy based on the principle of ‘migration with dignity’. This included the purchase of 5,460 acres of land in Fiji. More work is needed to understand the nature of Kiribati citizenship and rights in the case of such dispersal”.

Dutch newspaper Trouw recently reported how the statelessness-related problems identified above (e.g. not being able to graduate from high school or obtain a travel document) are even found in the Netherlands. According to the Dutch Statistical Bureau, 10,000 persons who were born in the Netherlands and reside there legally do not have a nationality. The total group of people legally residing in the Netherlands but without a nationality is in fact much larger, namely 55,000 persons. Almost 13,000 of them have been officially recognized as stateless, with all the right this entails including access to travel documents, but almost 43,000 persons are registered as being of “unknown nationality”. There are many examples showing that this group can remain stuck in legal limbo for an entire lifetime.

One of the key priorities of UNHCR, which we have seen in a four-part series has a mandate to protect stateless persons and in the long run eradicate statelessness, is that countries adopt a statelessness determination procedure. While this was also one of the recommendations in the 2011 UNHCR report Mapping Statelessness in the Netherlands, legislation on the issue is still to be implemented. The judiciary has been relatively silent on the matter, too, mainly because individual cases are “solved” by the Ministry of Justice at the last moment in order to prevent court from setting a precedent.

A number of large municipalities including Amsterdam have now decided that, given the magnitude of the problem, they will act themselves by independently assessing whether those who are currently registered as “nationality unknown” should not in fact be registered as stateless.

Other countries have creatively sought to remedy statelessness by linking it to the sale of passports. Building on her book The Global Market for Investor Citizenship, Jelena Dzankic has argued that resolving statelessness through investor citizenship can be highly problematic. The examples of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, whose governments purchased Comorian passports for their (nomadic) Bidoon populations, show that what at first sight may appear a satisfying arrangement for all parties in fact resulted in a highly insecure and weak status for the group involved.

While the Comoros received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment by giving passports to Bidoon families, these passports did not allow them to enter the country. Comoros is also unlikely to extend diplomatic protection to individuals who have never set foot on the island. The Comorian passport thus appears to serve as a way for UAE and Kuwait to circumvent their responsibility for an “unwanted” group through investor citizenship, making Dzankic wonder whether this is the right way to address statelessness.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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