As of January 2016, about 6.1 percent of Estonia’s population of 1.3 million is stateless – 79,300 people. When Estonia gained independence in 1991, the government adopted strict citizenship policies that made nearly 40 percent of the population stateless. Residents who were not Estonian citizens before World War II – many of them ethnic Russians – had to go through a strict naturalization process, including a language test and a residency period.
Disappointingly, while Estonia has made some strides in reducing child statelessness since then, it has not fully addressed the problem. In 2015, Estonia amended its Citizenship Law to make it easier for several categories of people, including children, to become naturalized from January 2016.
But there’s one glaring gap for children: Adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 and children born outside Estonia to stateless residents of Estonia still cannot automatically obtain citizenship.
There are huge implications for these children. In Estonia, the stateless hold a special legal status and children can access education and health care on an almost equal basis. But a lack of citizenship and identity can expose children to discrimination, meaning they often don’t feel at home in the country in which they live. It can also affect them psychologically.
Estonia’s government seems reluctant to want to change this. Recommendations from other states to act on child statelessness, and statelessness more generally, at a UN review last year were noted, but not accepted. Estonia is also not a party to the principal international human rights treaties relating to statelessness, stating in its report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that it has found that, “persons with undetermined citizenship residing in Estonia are currently enjoying all the rights under the Convention [Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons].”
Of course, child statelessness is not just limited to Estonia. At a time when there’s a global campaign to end all statelessness by 2024, the Committee on the Rights of the Child should help focus attention on the particular challenges stateless children face. All children have a right to a nationality and to live in a society free from discrimination. The committee needs to send a clear message that this key gap in Estonia’s child rights record requires an urgent fix.