GENEVA (Reuters) - Baby Rachel’s dad is Canadian, her mother is Chinese and 14 months after her birth in Beijing she’s finally a citizen too...of Ireland.
However, Chloe — who was born a month later in Brussels to Canadian and Algerian parents — is still stateless.
The two girls and their professional parents are confronting the increasingly common problem of securing nationality for children of the more than 200 million people who choose to live, work and study outside of their home countries.
Most of the world’s estimated 12 million stateless people — who cannot cross national borders — are poor, marginalized and live mainly in Kuwait, Nepal, Iraq, Myanmar, Thailand and the former Soviet republics.
But Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that gaps between national citizenship laws have put high-flying professionals around the globe in the same boat as migrants and refugees when it comes to getting passports for their kids.
“Far more people live outside their country of nationality than before, and there are more children born to parents of different countries,” he said. “We have a lot of situations where the children are not acquiring any nationality at all.”
Certain countries, including Switzerland, Japan and much of the European Union, do not confer citizenship automatically to babies born on their soil. In such places, expats whose own nationality cannot be transmitted abroad can find themselves with more than the usual dose of new-parent stress.
Ian Goldring and his wife Yamina Guidoum, both 43-year-old consultants based in Brussels, were not aware their daughter Chloe would be stateless until after her birth last year in Belgium, where the family of three has been marooned since.
Goldring, who was raised in Canada after being born in Bermuda where his Canadian father was working as an accountant, cannot pass on his citizenship because Ottawa changed its laws in 2009 to limit nationality to one generation born abroad.
And Guidoum was told that because she is a woman married to a foreign man, she cannot transmit her Algerian citizenship to a child born overseas. That leaves 16-month-old Chloe without a passport and her family confined to Belgium.
“I was flabbergasted,” Goldring said. “There are things that you could imagine happening in your life, like getting cancer, things that happen to people more or less like you. Having a stateless child is something that never occurred to me.”
Many countries limit citizenship to a certain number of generations born abroad, though in most cases an exemption is given when a citizen born abroad later resides in the country.
Women from Malaysia and Lebanon are also unable to pass on their citizenship abroad, a situation that until recently also applied to mothers from Kenya, Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Goldring said his family’s struggle to get a passport for Chloe has shocked their friends in Brussels and caused extra, undue anxiety in his and Guidoum’s initiation to parenthood.
“When people think of refugees and stateless people they don’t think of Western, educated professionals with an office job,” he said.
Rachel’s parents — Canadian teacher Patrick Chandler and Chinese mother Fiona Zou — were aghast to discover that because Chandler was born in Libya to Canadian parents and Zou was not married to him at the time of Rachel’s birth, neither of their home countries were willing to offer citizenship to their tiny tot.
Rachel was stateless for 14 months until she acquired Irish nationality through her paternal grandfather, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to Canada four decades ago.
“It really did not take long to get Irish citizenship for her, once we realized that it was an option,” said the 22-year-old Chandler, who teaches English in Beijing.
“I also applied for Irish citizenship for myself, because I figured that it might look strange to some customs officials at an airport when my family travels. They would see a Canadian, a Chinese, and an Irish baby traveling together,” he said.
Nationality is often the last thing on the mind of couples who fall in love, especially in places with large expatriate communities where international partnerships are common.
“When I married my husband I wasn’t thinking about the nationality of our children,” said a 46-year-old Briton working for an international organization in Geneva, who is trying to secure British nationality for her sons.
The official, who requested anonymity, said the fact that she was born in Kenya never crossed her mind as a complication when she and her Belgian spouse started a family in Switzerland. She considers it a cultural and emotional rift not to share her nationality with the boys.
“This is something you don’t actually stop and think about when you are working as a professional in a highly mobile world. You move to different countries for your career and you don’t necessarily look at the practicalities of what that is going to mean,” she said.
The United Nations estimates there are 214 million people currently living outside of their home countries, a large number of whom are workers of child-bearing age.
While it is hard to quantify how many professionals abroad are facing nationality trouble, International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said citizenship laws were not designed for the international life that many professionals today are pursuing.
“All kinds of people can fall through the cracks,” he said.
Several of Manly’s colleagues at the UNHCR in Geneva have knocked on his door seeking help with the jigsaw of nationality laws that affect them, including the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
That convention, which has only 37 signatories, states that when a child is ineligible at birth for another nationality, the country where he or she is born must grant them citizenship. The process to seek such recourse, where it applies, can be tricky and parents often need legal help to do so.
Philip Turpin, an Oxford-based solicitor, said he and his legal colleagues were receiving increasing numbers of requests for help with citizenship issues from overseas professionals.
“Individuals will often sort out their visas and the visas for their families but, when it comes to the birth of a child, different considerations arise,” he said.
“It is difficult to predict these because every country has its own provisions allowing the passing on of citizenship to children born overseas — what we call citizenship by descent — and every country has its own provisions for the acquisition of citizenship by birth.”
Statelessness rarely arises as a problem in the Americas region, where babies are broadly eligible for citizenship of their country of birth under the legal principle of “jus soli.”
Calls in the United States to deny nationality to “anchor babies,” whose U.S. citizenship at birth can keep their foreign parents in the country, would not necessarily lead to more statelessness overall, Manly said.
Requirements that citizenship be passed by descent or blood — in legal terms, “jus sanguinis” — are fine when there are policies in place to prevent people from falling through the cracks, he said, pointing to successful programs in Spain.
“The U.N. does not say that jus soli or jus sanguinis is better. There needs to be a combination of the two and adequate safeguards in place so that statelessness does not occur on the territory or to the nationals of the country abroad,” he said.
(Laura MacInnis was born in the United States to Canadian parents and has worked for Reuters in Switzerland since 2006.)
Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Paul Casciato