Spotlight on childhood statelessness in Austria

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This week at a launch event in Vienna, DLA Piper, Diakonie Flüchtlingsdienst and the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) will publish a report that sheds light on the issue of childhood statelessness in Austria. Following the comprehensive report published in April by UNHCR, Mapping Statelessness in Austria, the first detailed study of statelessness in the Austrian context, this new publication examines in detail how Austrian law and policy stands up to scrutiny in relation to the prevention and reduction of childhood statelessness.

Until UNHCR published its mapping study earlier this year, statelessness was largely a hidden issue in Austria. Part of the problem is the lack of accurate national data on the issue, made worse by the fact that Austria does not have any dedicated means by which to identify statelessness, as it has no Statelessness Determination Procedure. These are two fundamental and closely linked issues identified by UNHCR, which our study reiterates and calls for urgent action to address.

But the focus of our study is on Austria’s international obligations on the prevention and reduction of statelessness, and the provisions in its nationality laws to protect children born in Austria - or born to Austrian citizens abroad - from statelessness. This vital child rights issue has been a priority for ENS and its members in recent years, under the banner of its #StatelessKids campaign. Our report builds on the ENS campaign, adding to calls for states to amend their nationality laws to bring them fully in line with international obligations, and protect children from a life on the margins of society.

Austria was in fact one of the first states to accede to the 1961 Convention on the Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness in 1972, and has built safeguards into its nationality laws to protect children from statelessness. But some gaps do remain. One specific divergence where Austria’s legislation currently falls below international standards, is the age limit placed on children born in Austria who would otherwise be stateless to apply for naturalisation on reaching the age of majority. Currently, young people have only two years between the ages of 18 and 20 in which to make this application. The 1961 Convention requires states to lay down a minimum three-year timeframe up to the age of 21. Amending nationality law to extend this timeframe at least to the minimum three years would be a relatively simple, but very important action that the government could take to bring its legislation in line with international law. This would help to ensure that young people who have grown up stateless in Austria can access their right to a nationality.

There are other areas of law and policy where unclear or overly-complex procedures are creating barriers for children to exercise their right to a nationality. One is in the case of adoption by Austrian citizens of a child aged between 14-18 years, where the procedure for granting that child Austrian nationality if they would otherwise be stateless is unclear. Another is in the case of children born to an Austrian father abroad, where the parents are not married. The complex procedure in these cases for determining paternity places obstacles in the way of the child’s right to Austrian nationality.

In the current context of the tragic increase in the numbers of people fleeing conflict and persecution globally - including from countries such as Syria and Iraq where there are both pre-existing stateless populations and discrimination in nationality laws that prevent women from passing on their nationality to their children - it is ever more important for refugee hosting nations, such as Austria, to pay attention to how their own nationality laws or civil registration procedures may inhibit or prevent children from accessing their right to a nationality.

We hope that our report will help to further raise the profile of statelessness in Austria, generate civil society engagement, give voice to the children, men and women affected, and, importantly, foster government action to address the gaps highlighted in our report.

The report, ‘No child should be stateless in Austria’, will be launched at an event on 27 July 2017 (17.00-18.30h) at the offices of DLA Piper in Vienna (Schottenring 14, 1010 Vienna). The report will be available to download here from 27 July 2017.