The Tokyo Olympics and the recent announcements of this year’s Nobel prize winners have drawn our attention to the notion of nationality.
We tend to take it for granted that everyone has a nationality. However, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of stateless people in the several millions.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Causes of statelessness are diverse and complex. It could result from the disappearance of one’s nation in an armed conflict, or from a nation persecuting a specific ethnic group and denying citizenship to the entire group.
No individual should ever be subjected to the insecurity and distress of not being able to turn to any government for protection.
And this is not something occurring only in distant countries.
In Japan, the number of stateless youngsters has grown rapidly in recent years. According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, there were 211 stateless infants and toddlers under the age of 5, roughly four times more than five years earlier.
But the number is believed to be underreported due to restrictions on the survey method.
The agency also conducted its first follow-up survey of about 300 stateless children who were born between 2016 and 2020, and found that more than 20 percent of them were still without citizenship in April this year.
Why is the number of stateless kids on the rise?
With more foreigners living in Japan as technical intern trainees or students, conceivable reasons include that they have babies here but choose not to register the births with their own governments, or that they themselves are stateless and unable to go through legal procedures.
Being registered as having residence in Japan prevents immediate problems from arising in their children’s daily lives in matters such as receiving health checks and attending kindergarten or school.
But if the parents are undocumented, their children are likely to remain “invisible” in society. And being stateless continues to expose the kids to various hurdles later in life, such as when they try to travel or study overseas, marry or give birth.
Citizenship is the basis of every individual’s personal rights and deeply impacts the formation of their identity.
The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child spells out every child’s right to acquire citizenship, and it is the government’s duty to resolve related problems.
What needs to be done first is to accurately assess the situation of stateless people of all ages.
There are also practical issues that require reconsideration.
For instance, a support group for stateless people points out that it is not unusual for immigration authorities to draw hasty conclusions from a mother’s background when registering her child’s nationality on the residency card.
As a result, when the child contacts the embassy of their supposed home country for the first time to obtain a passport or for some other reason, they may discover that they have not been recognized as a citizen. The shock of such a discovery can cause incalculable damage.
Authorities need to grant citizenship in a more proactive manner. The Nationality Law provides that a child born in Japan of parents who are missing or stateless be recognized as a Japanese citizen. In cases where this provision appears applicable, appropriate steps must be taken swiftly in keeping with the law.
Whether Japan is a nation that respects the rights of every individual, or doesn’t, is reflected in how it interacts with minorities.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 13