Investigation: Stranger in a native land

This is the second of a three-part investigation I co-reported and co-wrote with María Álvarez del Vayo, Ter Garcia, Carmen Torrecillas, and Adrián Maqueda of Civio with help from some EDJNet partners. Part 1, “Investigation: One small step for a few, one giant leap for the rest: how to become a European citizenis here. Part 3 “People of no nation: how being stateless means living without rights” is here. The data visualizations are only visible at the Civio website. También hay una versión en español.

Faussan was born in 2016 at Moncloa University Hospital in Madrid, Spain. By then, nine years had passed since his parents left Bangladesh to live in Spain. “When he was born, we registered him and gave him a Bangladeshi passport, because he was not Spanish, he was Bangladeshi,” explains his father, Hassan. When Faussan was one year old, his parents applied for Spanish nationality on his behalf. Despite being born in Spain in 2016, it was not until 2020, four years later, that Faussan finally became a Spanish citizen.

If Faussan had been born in another European Union (EU) country, his early life might have been different. In Germany, Portugal and Ireland he would have acquired citizenship automatically at birth. That is because, though citizenship isn’t granted automatically to everyone born in these countries, it is available to children of people legally residing there for specified periods. As with any other baby born in the country to citizens, Faussan’s parents would have gone to the registry to register his birth as a citizen, they would not have had to apply for a residence permit for him, and the child would never have appeared on Spain’s list of naturalisations because he would have been a citizen from birth.

In 2022, Italy and Spain were the two European countries that conducted the most naturalisations, 213,716 and 181,581 respectively, according to the latest Eurostat data. But almost a third of them are people who were born in those same countries. They are so-called second-generation migrants: people who were born in the country and yet often still carry the stigmas and obstacles their parents endured when they arrived. The proportion is similar in Austria, and even higher in Greece, where more than half of the 12,733 people granted citizenship were children born there.

In 2022, Germany ranked third in Eurostat’s ranking of nationality grants: 166,640. But there is an important difference: there, children born to foreigners are automatically German if one of the parents has had a residence permit for eight years, a period that will be reduced to five years in June 2024, as a result of a reform of the Citizenship Law.

Although European Union member state laws tend to favour nationality by descent (ius sanguinis) rather than by place of birth (ius soli), several countries allow for people born there to become citizens independently of their parents’ nationality in special circumstances. Five countries automatically grant nationality to those born there with foreign parents who meet certain requirements, according to the Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT). Portugal offers nationality to children born there whose foreign parents have been resident one year. Ireland does so after three years. Germany does so after five years, as of June 2024. And Luxembourg and France grant nationality automatically to people born there who can prove having lived there 5 years, when those people turn 18. In France, more than a quarter of the approximately 114,500 naturalisations in 2022 were for children aged 13 to 17 years old whose parents applied despite the provision for automatic nationality at age 18.

In contrast, fifteen other EU countries do not allow for automatic naturalisation of children born there to foreign parents, but do offer simplified procedures, such as reducing the time required for prior legal residence. There is no common rule: while in Spain, the parents of children born in the country may apply for their child’s nationality after one year of legal residence, in Italy they cannot apply until the child turns 18, and in Greece, parents may apply once their children are enrolled in school. Sweden requires three years of residence, not only for children born there, but for all minors resident in the country, regardless of their place of birth.

In all these countries, the first obstacle to naturalisation is obtaining legal residence. “When [children] are born to parents in an irregular situation, they are also in an irregular situation,” explains Diego Fernández-Maldonado, a migration lawyer for the civil society organisation Caritas in Madrid, Spain.

Once families obtain residence permits for their child, the next problem is to avoid falling back into irregularity, so the child may complete the required number of years of legal residence to obtain citizenship. There are several reasons that can lead to not being able to renew the residence permit: lack of documentation from the country of origin, having a criminal record or leaving the country for longer than allowed.

How to avoid statelessness

In most EU countries, mechanisms have been put in place to prevent statelessness, and the most common of them is to grant nationality automatically to people born there who would otherwise have no nationality. What are these cases? The children of stateless people, from countries that no longer exist or have no administration, but also the children of people whose countries, such as Paraguay, do not consider the children of their citizens as nationals if they are born abroad.

In 12 EU countries, these children are automatically citizens, with no further requirements. These include Spain, France and Italy. In 13 other countries, there are rules for naturalising these children automatically, but only if they meet certain requirements, such as their parents having legal residence, or there are processes in place so that they can apply for it when they themselves have been resident for a certain number of years. In Austria, for example, despite being born there, stateless children cannot apply for citizenship until they turn 18 and document 10 years of residence. In Germany, they may apply for citizenship before they turn 21, but only if they can prove five years of residence. Cyprus and Romania have no path to nationality for these people.

Arbër Agalliu is an Italian-Albanian activist who has been calling for reform of the Italian citizenship law for ten years and is co-founder of the Italians Without Citizenship collective. “If you were born in Italy but spent too much time outside the country before you turned 18, you risk having your application for citizenship rejected,” he says. Agalliu’s friend Nadia was born in Italy to Moroccan parents. “She spent too many summers in Morocco with her family during her childhood and her application was rejected,” he says.

Agalliu arrived in Italy in 1998, when he was only 11 years old, because of the financial crisis that hit Albania in the late 1990s. He explains how, as a child, at school it was more offensive to call someone “Albanian” than “asshole” and his parents had to take him out of class to take his fingerprints at the police station to renew his papers. “Experiencing this situation of illegality even as a child, at a stage of life when you shouldn’t worry about such things at all, leaves a mark on you,” Agalliu says.

Same requirements, even if you were born in the country

Denmark is one of the most difficult countries in Europe for children born there to foreign parents to become citizens. In 2004, it removed the option for people born there to declare themselves Danish when they turn 18, and in 2021 it made it even harder for them to obtain Danish citizenship by requiring them to have held a job for three and a half years, the same requirement as for migrants to the country.

“That is a big problem for many young persons who have been born and raised or just raised in Denmark: They would now have to wait until they maybe turn 30 or something because they had to finalize their studies at university and after that find full-time employment for three and a half years,” says Eva Ersbøll, a researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and former legal assistant to the Danish Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Denmark, Malta and Poland are among the seven European countries that do not have any procedure for access to nationality for people born there to foreign parents, so such people must go through the same procedure, with the same requirements, as foreign adults arriving in the country. Most countries do not even consider the case of people born in the country to parents who, although they do not have nationality, were also born in the country, or so-called third generation migration.

A missed opportunity in much of the European Union

Growing up in a country that considers you a foreigner is, to say the least, “strange,” says antidiscrimination activist Youssef Ouled of the civil society organisation Rights International Spain in Madrid, Spain. At age 14, he had to learn how the bureaucracy worked and, above all, the stigma of “not being Spanish at all,” he recalls. He says he felt stigma when he was just a few years old and he became even more aware of it as he grew older and police officers asked him for his papers in the street, or when elections came around and, unlike his peers, he could not vote, or when he had to renew his residence permit every few years.

In Denmark, the barriers legislators created mean that young people born to foreigners who “during their whole life, have felt Danish. They consider themselves to be Danish. They speak Danish. They have a school exam. They graduate. They compare themselves to Danish comrades who are born in the same hospitals, attended the same school. And when [they turn 18 and must begin the] naturalisation process, for the first time many of them start to consider themselves not as Danish as they felt before,” Ersbøll says.

Economist Christina Gathmann of the Luxembourg Institute for Socio-Economic Research, calls it a “missed opportunity” that most countries do not recognise birthright citizenship for children of foreign parents: “Europe is falling behind or not thinking about the benefits, because very few countries in Europe have birthright citizenship.”

She gives the example of Germany, where children of foreign parents with legal residence are automatically German: “This has big implications for the educational choices for the educational investments. You see many more people going to the highest academic track in high school. You see more people starting and taking up university education,” says Gathmann. The reason for this is clear, she says: “Parents from the start get this different perspective about the opportunities for their child.”

Ouled is now 29 years old, works as an antidiscrimination activist and journalist, is married and has a two-year-old daughter, who has been Spanish since birth. It has been almost nine years since he obtained his nationality and his life is now easier. He still feels a certain stigma, but in a different way. “The police don’t stop me any less for having nationality: before, I used to take out my NIE and they had me up against the wall for an hour, and now I take out my DNI and they tell me ‘Carry on’, but they continue to profile me, search me and criminalise me in the same way,” he says.

People such as Ouled are so-called “second-generation migrants,” a term that Agalliu says we should erase from our vocabulary: “For many of them, the only migration process was from the hospital where they were born to their homes.”

First published by Civio: [html] [pdf].