Can collaboration between academics and non-profits help protect citizenship rights?

Dr Rachel Pougnet, Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol

Building bridges between academia and non-profit organisations through partnerships is a critical tool to protect the ‘right to have rights’. These formal collaborations build on shared expertise and co-produce knowledge which can help to identify risks of statelessness, better inform government policies and hold governments to account.

Citizenship is becoming increasingly precarious. Once a core safeguard against arbitrariness, citizenship is now made contingent on individuals’ conduct and foreign heritage. Deprivation of nationality, which applies differently to different kinds of citizens, has become a core resource of state power. Since the fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), most European states have failed to repatriate their own nationals. Some have chosen to only process the repatriation of orphans and ‘vulnerable children’ on a case-by-case basis. These practices have triggered critical concerns raised by human rights defenders and civil society organisations. The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) called 2020 its ‘Year of Action’ against deprivation of nationality. In 2020, Rights and Security International (RSI) released a landmark report, ‘Europe’s Guantanamo’, which addresses the issue of the indefinite detention of European women and children in Northeast Syria. Academics from across a range of disciplines have also directed their attention to these prevalent state practices.

It is crucial for both academics and civil society to join forces if governments are to be held to account. Knowledge Exchange Partnerships, or collaborations between civil society organisations and academics, provide a good opportunity to do just that. They enable a two-way exchange to share ideas, experience, data, and skills, in a way which is mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Most importantly, this co-productive form of research and policy work is critical to upholding every person’s right to a nationality.

Collaboration between ENS and the University of Bristol

This year, ENS and the University of Bristol have joined forces in a Knowledge Exchange Partnership funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to raise awareness of the growing practice of deprivation of nationality leading to (a risk of) statelessness and broader issues linked to nationality rights in Europe, including the non-repatriation of children of so-called ‘foreign fighters’. Through a two-way collaborative process, we have aimed to ensure that our respective expertise and working methods encouraged an active flow of ideas to identify risks of statelessness and best protect citizenship rights. Together, we have worked towards the following outputs:

  • Using ENS’ Statelessness Index data to raise awareness of how citizenship deprivation in Europe can lead to statelessness through the development of a thematic briefing,
  • Organising a webinar on how to galvanise action across Europe to ensure deprivation of nationality does not result in statelessness,
  • Working in partnership with three ENS national members to conduct research into the risk of statelessness posed by the non-repatriation of the children of so-called ‘foreign fighters’ from Iraq and Syria,
  • Drafting a policy briefing setting out recommendations on how to avoid childhood statelessness in the context of non-repatriation (to be published in Autumn 2021).

Deprivation of nationality and the prevention of statelessness in Europe

Deprivation of nationality has attracted much attention over the past 10 years. Drawing on populist discourses and images of national communities under threat, states have been able to deny the most basic rights to their nationals by depriving them of their nationality. National security concerns have been the powerhouse behind this domino effect. In Europe alone, nine states have amended their legislation since 2010 to make it easier for the competent authorities to deprive individuals of their nationality on security grounds. In these cases, individuals have not always been safeguarded against statelessness.

Drawing on ENS’ Statelessness Index data, the recent briefing co-produced by the University of Bristol and ENS describes the relationship between deprivation of nationality and the prevention of statelessness. It also provides an overview of international norms and good practices on deprivation of nationality, and presents a state of play analysis. It highlights categories of nationals who are disproportionately affected by deprivation of nationality and suggests key action areas to protect the right to a nationality and prevent statelessness in Europe, such as to:

  1. Provide clear, updated, and accessible data on deprivation of nationality.
  2. Introduce or improve safeguards to prevent statelessness in all cases of deprivation or loss of nationality.
  3. Guarantee effective procedural safeguards for all decisions on deprivation of nationality.
  4. Avoid using deprivation of nationality for the purposes of safeguarding national security.

In a webinar with leading experts and key stakeholders in the fields of human rights, citizenship and statelessness, we then explored the key issues raised in the briefing. Participants discussed how to galvanize action at national and regional levels to ensure deprivation or loss of nationality does not result in statelessness in Europe. They also underlined the necessity for different actors (non-profit organisations, academics, parliamentarians and civil society) to collaborate in scrutinising government practices and law, in order to better inform policies.

Children of ‘foreign fighters’ and the risk of statelessness posed by non-repatriation policies

Another key focus of our collaboration has been to partner with three leading experts in the fields of child rights, statelessness, nationality law, and human rights in France, the Netherlands and the UK, to further investigate the risks of statelessness posed by (non) repatriation of the children of so-called ‘foreign fighters’.

Indeed, thousands of children of ‘foreign fighters’ are currently stranded in camps and jails in Syria and Iraq. They live in dire conditions and are unable to access basic rights and services. Many of these children are European nationals but most European states have refused to facilitate their repatriation, sometimes by depriving their parents of their nationality, directly challenging the children’s nationality through DNA tests or by failing to register their birth or to give them adequate documentation to establish their nationality. When European states have accepted repatriation, it has mainly been on a case-by-case basis. This legal void leaves children at significant risk of statelessness. Statelessness heightens their already extremely precarious circumstances and brings further issues of access to education and healthcare, alongside discrimination.

By focusing on the law, practice, and international obligations of France, the Netherlands and the UK, this research seeks to identify and better understand what risks of statelessness these children face and make recommendations on how they can best be addressed. The research also aims to provide a-more comprehensive overview of the discourses that seek to justify the non-repatriation of these children. Civil society has been working tirelessly to ensure that states respect their international obligations in the repatriation of their nationals. These calls have mostly been left unanswered. It is of paramount importance to identify the challenges faced by the children of ‘foreign fighters’ and protect their right to nationality.

This project has reinforced our conviction that collaboration between civil society organisations and academia can help counteract human rights violations through joint research, advocacy and activities. Non-profit organisations have a presence on the ground and/or long-term partnerships with actors, as well as vast experience of talking to different audiences, raising awareness and advocacy skills. Academics have the research skills, in-depth expertise of specific issues, and access to support structures and infrastructures within their universities to help set-up and carry out such projects. Funders, in turn, are on the lookout for these exchanges and have the resources to support them. Applications that involve both parties at an early stage to design the research project, discuss outputs and deliverables, and propose to fund the involvement of partners in the project have stronger chances of success in the hyper-competitive world of funding applications. Besides, such partnerships should not be reserved to ‘big’ academic names and organisations. Early career researchers and specialised or smaller organisations have credibility and valuable insight to contribute to the conversation. Our own approach has been to engage in a dialogue with each other, to build on our own strengths, expertise, and research skills to build pathways to safeguard nationality rights and to fight against deprivation of citizenship. Together, we aim to take small, but decisive, steps towards the protection of citizenship rights and eradication of statelessness.  ‘

This post was originally published on the European Network on Statelessness on the 8th of September 2021.

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