By Ottoline Spearman*
Education is one of the most powerful tools to transform societies. Yet millions of stateless children worldwide face multiple barriers in accessing this core human right. Our response is to call for inclusive education for all stateless children and an end to exclusion from education based on nationality.
Over seventy years ago, Hannah Arendt described nationality as the “right to have rights.” Today, in our state-centric world, Arendt’s words still ring true. Nationality functions as a gateway through which other human rights are accessed, despite a robust international human rights framework that protects these rights. Although at least 15 million people are stateless globally, there is still a lack of awareness of statelessness and its ramifications within the international community.
With statelessness comes inherited statelessness, where lack of nationality is passed onto children. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that 70,000 children are born into statelessness every year, which equates to a child born stateless every 10 minutes. Statelessness has an acute impact on children, not least the barriers it imposes on accessing quality education.
Lack of nationality and documentation substantially impedes access to formal, state-provided education. Stateless children are often excluded as they cannot meet basic documentation requirements to register for school. If they do manage to enrol, they face further barriers, undermining their ability to progress throughout school uninterrupted. Progression in school is not guaranteed as they may be unable to graduate, as lack of nationality can result in the denial of graduation certificates. The impact is severe and long-lasting and affects not only individual children, but their communities as a whole.
All children have a right to education, as specified in the most widely ratified human rights treaty, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The CRC Committee has clarified that the obligations laid out in the treaty including in the area of education, extend to stateless children within the jurisdiction of a state, without discrimination (Article 2) and in accordance with the principle of the best interest of the child (Article 3). The right to education is also guaranteed in other core international human rights treaties, and a key target of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 4).
There is clearly a recognition of the power of education, and the crucial role that it plays in helping to lift people out of poverty, foster inclusive and equal societies, and advance economic development. For stateless children - who are already deprived of their right to nationality - quality education would provide a fundamental opportunity to shift their life trajectory and help to overcome boundaries imposed by lack of nationality.
Yet despite the recognition of education as a core human right, stateless children are being left behind. While there are global efforts being undertaken to support access to education for children - including among the UN family and international child’s rights organisations – more awareness and action is needed to address the specific obstacles stateless children face in this regard. UN agencies such as UNICEF work closely with local organisations who provide education services, but where statelessness is concerned, these children are often invisible as they are excluded from official data and statistics, making it difficult to identify them and ensure the services on offer can be accessed. Education services therefore may not reach stateless children, including those provided by international child’s rights organisations.
If the UN family and the international community is to make good on the commitment to ensure equitable access to education for all children, there is an urgent need for relevant actors to better understand the challenges specific to stateless children. UN agencies and child’s rights actors must introduce statelessness specific programming or adapt existing programming to address stateless children’s needs. Increasing international actors’ awareness of statelessness would allow them to work with their national partners to break down the barriers to education that stateless children face in-country.
In the absence of quality education, communities are forced to adapt. The story of a team of young stateless gymnasts in Pakistan is a poignant example of the indomitable spirit of children who strive to overcome adversity in pursuit of their dreams. Unable to attend school, these children relied on community-led initiatives for education, going on to inform others about the challenges that statelessness carries. Their story is just one of many.
The importance of community-led initiatives to foster education has been highlighted in a campaign this November on Childhood Statelessness and the Right to Education. Together with national partners in ten countries, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion is working to raise awareness among the international community and empower stateless children on their rights. Over 690 individuals and 20 organisations have signed onto an Open Letter which urges states, UN agencies, the international community and others to ensure inclusive access to education.
And what about the voices of children themselves? On Tuesday 28 November, a symposium on ‘Addressing Lack of Education for Children without Legal Identity’ will be held, where stateless children will engage members of the UNCRC and UNHCR. In a world where education is a fundamental right, lack of nationality should not be the barrier.
*Ottoline Spearman, Program & Media Officer at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion - the first and the only human rights NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at the global level.