A father and son on the beach
A father and son on the beach
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We need to do more to help stateless children realise their right to Australian citizenship

An unknown number of children are being born in Australia to parents who have no nationality. They have a right to apply for citizenship but their families don’t know about it.

Published Thursday 25 March 2021
By Sarah Dale, Katie Robertson
The interview room is cramped. Amir* clutches his young son who sits on his lap, playing with a small toy truck and softly humming to himself. 

Amir clears his throat and begins to talk. “Being stateless has been a huge source of sadness for me in my life,” he tells us. “Wherever I’ve gone, I have no rights. I hope for better for my children.”

It’s a simple, yet universal sentiment all parents can relate to when it comes to the hopes we harbour for our young. Yet for Amir, the path to a bright future for his son Aref* is rockier than many. 

Amir and his four children are stateless, meaning they have no nationality and are not recognised as ‘belonging’ to any country. To be stateless often means being locked out from enjoying the basic rights many of us take for granted, such as access to education and healthcare – of critical importance during a global pandemic. 

Aref was born in Australia – it is the only country he has ever known. Having inherited his parents’ status as stateless, there is no country in the world he can be ‘returned’ to. 

“All my children feel Australian,” Amir tells us. “But being on a temporary visa makes it hard. We want our children to feel secure, and not carry our worries about their future.”

We want our children to feel secure, and not carry our worries about their future. - Amir
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Stateless. The convention is a cornerstone international treaty in the fight to end statelessness for Amir and the estimated 10 to 15 million other stateless men, women and children around the world. 

Australia was one of the first nations in the world to ratify this treaty, which requires that states establish safeguards aimed at reducing and preventing statelessness. In theory, Australia has shown a firm commitment to implementing such safeguards, by enshrining the right of Australian-born stateless children like Aref to apply for citizenship in domestic law. In practice, however, little action has been taken to meaningfully address this critical human rights issue.

A father and son on the beach
Source: E+/Getty

The problem is twofold. Firstly, research indicates that stateless parents of Australian-born children, like Aref, are unlikely to even know about this right to citizenship, let alone how to navigate the complex legal and administrative application process. 

Amir counts himself as one of the lucky ones, having been alerted to his son’s right to citizenship in the process of obtaining free legal advice regarding his visa application. 

“Our lawyer first told us about applying for citizenship,” he tells us. “We didn’t know this was possible. Sometimes I wonder – if they hadn’t told me about this process, how would I know?”

The second problem is more fundamental – we simply don’t know how many stateless people there are in Australia. With no coordinated or consistent approach to collecting information regarding the extent of Australia’s stateless population, meaningfully addressing statelessness - as Australia has committed to do - is impossible. 

Our report, A Place to Call Home: Shining a Light on Unmet Legal Need for Stateless Refugee Children in Australia, released on Thursday, found a significant but unknown number of children have been born in Australia to stateless asylum seeker and refugee parents.

While some are prohibited from applying for permanent protection under Australian immigration law and some remain at risk of removal to Nauru, they are, however, eligible for Australian citizenship by virtue of their inherited statelessness.

In the most recent annual reporting to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Australia failed to record any data regarding the number of stateless persons in our territory. Yet even a rudimentary review of publicly available statistics on the Department of Home Affairs website for the same reporting period indicates there were more than 4,000 stateless persons known to immigration authorities. The true figure is likely to be much higher.

Australia is to be commended for showing early international leadership by committing to reducing statelessness. But more must be done to meaningfully tackle the issue. Indeed, Australian engagement in addressing cases of statelessness is crucial in supporting the UNHCR’s increasingly ambitious Global Plan to End Statelessness by 2024. 

The first step is to establish a mechanism for clearly and fairly identifying stateless persons in this country. This must be matched by adequate funding of legal services to ensure stateless parents, like Amir, are made aware of their children’s right to citizenship, and can successfully navigate the application process.

As Amir stands to leave he pauses, collecting his thoughts while cradling his son.

“Citizenship to me means protection and certainty for my children,” he tells us. “Without it, I fear they have no future.” 

More than providing Aref with a secure future, Australian citizenship offers him a place to call home. Something we all deserve. 

*Names have been changed

Katie Robertson is an Australian lawyer and Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness where she coordinates the Stateless Children Legal Clinic. 

Sarah Dale is the Principal Solicitor and Centre Director of the Refugee Advice Caseworker Service (RACS) and co-chair of the Stateless Children Legal Australia Network. She leads RACS' Stateless Children Program which provides assistance to stateless Australian born children in applying for citizenship.