Shining a light on the global human rights challenge of statelessness

The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School is making a big impact on the global effort to reduce statelessness and protect the rights of stateless people in Australia and around the world.

The 2020 cohort of the Centre’s annual Statelessness Intensive Course

The 2020 cohort of the Centre’s annual Statelessness Intensive Course pictured with Professor Michelle Foster and Katie Robertson.

An estimated ten to fifteen million people around the world are stateless, a third of whom are thought to be children. Stateless people live in all parts of the world, including Australia, and are often denied basic human rights due to their lack of legal status.

In 2018, the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness was established within Melbourne Law School through a generous philanthropic donation from MLS alumnus Peter McMullin and his wife Ruth, which was one of the most significant gifts in the history of the Law School.

The couple’s generosity established the world’s only academic research centre dedicated to the issue of statelessness. Led by international refugee and statelessness law expert Professor Michelle Foster, the Centre undertakes research, teaching and engagement activities aimed at reducing statelessness and protecting the rights of stateless people in Australia, the Asia Pacific region, and more broadly.

Professor Foster says it is difficult to accurately gauge the number of stateless people and identify their needs because, unlike refugees, stateless persons in many countries are not registered or granted a legal status and documentation.

“Statelessness is a serious human rights issue affecting millions of people globally,” she says. “Having been overlooked for a long period it is finally receiving the attention it deserves by the international community, but so much more needs to be done in terms of understanding the scale of statelessness and developing effective responses to it.”

Since its inception the Centre has been a world leader in the field of statelessness and has partnered with other organisations to create new research. In March, the Centre published a new report on child statelessness in Australia in partnership with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), called A Place to Call Home.

Co-authored by Research Fellow Katie Robertson and Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor at RACS and launched by Gillian Triggs, Assistant Secretary General and Assistant High Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, the report identifies barriers to accessing citizenship for Australian-born children who would otherwise be stateless and documents the lived experience of statelessness through interviews with families experiencing statelessness in Australia.

A short video about the report, highlighting the story of one of the stateless fathers featured in the report, can be viewed here.

Sarah and Katie at launch

Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor at RACS and Research Fellow Katie Robertson from the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the launch of A Place to Call Home.

Katie Robertson says one of the key findings of the project is that parents of stateless children are unlikely to be able to navigate the citizenship application process without access to free, specialised legal support.

“There is no point in having good legal protections if the very people they are intended to protect don’t know about them,” she says. “Our research identifies a very clear need for greater legal assistance and targeted legal funding for stateless children in Australia.”

As a first step to addressing this legal need, the Centre has established the Stateless Children Legal Clinic (SCLC), in partnership with RACS and the MLS Clinics. The SCLC offers MLS Juris Doctor students the opportunity to develop practical legal skills and directly assist in the delivery of essential legal services to stateless children in their application for Australian citizenship, with potentially life-changing outcomes. The SCLC is the first stateless legal clinic of its kind in Australia, and the third of its kind globally.

Alongside the SCLC, the Centre has also recently launched the Stateless Children Legal Australia Network, which aims to monitor and assess the legal needs and complexities faced by stateless children born in Australia and create a network between legal practitioners working on this issue.

The Centre has also recently undertaken a consultancy for three United Nations agencies on nomadic peoples and statelessness, and later in 2021 will launch a project called Understanding Statelessness in Australian Law and Practice, funded by the Australian Research Council, that will conduct the first comprehensive study of stateless persons in Australia. This three-year mapping study aims to address the lack of proper procedures for identifying and protecting stateless persons in Australia, combining statistical analysis and interviews with advocates and service providers to help identify the needs of this vulnerable group of people.

As the Centre continues to make an impact on the global debate around statelessness, Professor Foster says it is vital to put the voices of those living with the issue at the forefront of the conversation.

“Only those who have experienced statelessness can truly understand the impact and reality of deprivation and discrimination that is often the hallmark of being without a nationality,” Professor Foster says.

“In undertaking research and developing policy responses, it is imperative that we consider the perspectives of those whose lived reality is at the heart of all the work that we do.”