'Somewhere to call home': helping stateless children realise their right to Australian citizenship

An unknown number of children born in Australia to stateless parents are entitled to citizenship, but their families don’t know about it

Muhammad and Sumaiya* have never known a place to call home.

Denied citizenship in their homeland Myanmar, amid the broader violent oppression of their Rohingya minority, the couple arrived in Australia by boat in 2013, and have lived since with the uncertainty of capricious, temporary protection.

The precarity of statelessness was not a status they wanted to pass on to their three children. But for their youngest, Australian-born son, they discovered – through sheer good fortune in a meeting with their lawyer – there was a solution: his right to Australian citizenship.

“For us, being stateless means we don’t have any country or documentation,” the couple told researchers.

“We feel very distressed about this. When our son was granted Australian citizenship we were extremely happy. It was a big deal, because we have never known in our lives what it is like to be a citizen.”

A new report from the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) and the University of Melbourne’s Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness has found there are an unknown number of stateless children, born in Australia, whose families are unaware they are entitled to become citizens.

Being stateless – having no nationality of any country – has profound ramifications for those without the right to belong anywhere, and these are particularly acute for children, who struggle to access education, healthcare and other services, and are at greater risk of exploitation.

Citizenship, at its essence the right to belong to a nation, is regarded as a fundamental right from which myriad others flow.

“There are many – potentially dozens – of stateless children in Australia with a prima facie entitlement to Australian citizenship, who are not aware of this entitlement, or in contact with a specialised legal service for assistance,” the report argues.

“For these children, Australia is the only home they have ever known. Their legal status as ‘stateless’ means they have no country to ‘return’ to, having inherited no nationality from their parents.”

Many of the children believed to be stateless in Australia were born in the country to refugee parents who have no citizenship themselves. They live “a life characterised by uncertainty”, the report argues, those on temporary visas must reapply to stay in Australia every three or five years, others are in Australia on a ‘transitory’ basis, at risk of removal at any time.

“The precarious temporary basis upon which they remain in Australia means their chance to grow and develop as individuals in a secure environment – the opportunity to be children with hopes and dreams for the future – is overshadowed by a perpetual lack of certainty regarding their ability to remain here.”

Statelessness is a significant and growing issue globally. And while the UN estimates between 10 million and 15 million people are stateless worldwide, with one-third of those children, the actual figure is likely to be significantly higher. It’s estimated a stateless child is born every 10 minutes.

Katie Robertson, a research fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, says Australia – as a party to the convention on the reduction of statelessness – has been a global leader in enshrining into domestic law the right of Australian-born stateless children to claim citizenship.

But the practical realisation of that right remains fraught – the process is legalistic and administratively complex, and many of those who are entitled to it don’t know about it.

“The fundamental issue is that 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 the issue – as Australia has committed to do – is practically impossible.

“Our research suggests however there is a not insignificant number of stateless children in Australia who have this right to citizenship. What we are aiming to do is locate and link them with legal services to help them realise this right.

“There is no point in having good legal protections if the very people they are intended to protect don’t know about them.”

The principal solicitor at RACS, Sarah Dale, said the organisation had identified, through its community networks, 50 stateless children who were entitled to citizenship. She said while the application process could be complex to navigate, obtaining a nationality was profoundly life-altering.

“Often a child’s citizenship is an end to intergenerational statelessness, something that has existed in a family’s life always. So for people to have a child that will have citizenship, that is an incredible change, not only for that child, but for all the generations that will follow.

“We all need somewhere to belong, for those of us born belonging, it can be incredibly hard to comprehend what it is like to live, not having somewhere to call home.”

Jeanine Hourani’s first identity document was a travel document issued by Syria to stateless Palestinians. She is now an Australian citizen
Jeanine Hourani’s first identity document was a travel document issued by Syria to stateless Palestinians. She is now an Australian citizen. Photograph: Jeanine Hourani/The Guardian

The director of Road to Refuge, Jeanine Hourani, inherited her statelessness from her Palestinian father. Born in Bahrain, she arrived in Australia with her family on her third birthday: her father was on a skilled visa and the family had been granted permanent residency.

“The man at passport control said to my father ‘welcome home sir’. He told me later, that that was the first time someone had said to him ‘welcome home’,” Hourani says.

“‘I’d been stateless my whole life,’ my father says, ‘I never knew what it meant to belong somewhere’.”

When he was born in Melbourne, Hourani’s younger brother was entitled to citizenship.

Jeanine Hourani arrived in Australia as a stateless child, but became an Australian citizen
Jeanine Hourani arrived in Australia as a stateless child, but became an Australian citizen. Photograph: Jeanine Hourani/The Guardian

Later, at six, Hourani was granted Australian citizenship. Her father, for the first time in his life, became a citizen that day too.

“Mine was the third generation of statelessness in my family. My father didn’t want that for me. If you don’t have a state, you don’t have a home.”

* names have been changed


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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