Zhao v. Netherlands

UN Human Rights Committee
Netherlands Antilles
Case Manager

Unknown Nationality: Children left in Limbo in the Netherlands

Denny Zhao was born in the Netherlands, but was registered in the Dutch civil registry with an “unknown” nationality. This registration denies him access to Dutch nationality and prevents him from being recognized as “stateless,” leaving him in legal limbo. More than 13,000 children in the Netherlands are in the same situation. Denny Zhao’s mother was born in China, but has no documentation proving her own identity. Despite constant efforts, she has been unable to obtain recognition of Denny as a national of China or of the Netherlands. Despite this evidence, the authorities refuse to register him as stateless, leaving him without a nationality since birth. On behalf of Denny, the Justice Initiative has taken a case to the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing that this situation breaches the Netherlands’ international obligations to address childhood statelessness. 


Denny Zhao was both in the Netherlands in 2010. His mother, Xiao Jie Zhao, was born in China in 1989. Ms. Zhao was never registered in China and has been unable to obtain proof of Chinese citizenship. She states that she was trafficked to the Netherlands from China at age 15. Denny has no contact with his father, who has not recognized paternity. 

At birth, the Dutch authorities registered Denny’s nationality as “unknown.” Despite years of efforts, Denny’s mother has been unsuccessful in changing his nationality entry in the registry to “stateless,” which would afford him international protections including the right to acquire nationality of the state in which he was born. The strict proof required by the current rules applicable in the registration process and the lack of an appropriate statelessness status determination procedure have made it impossible to correct Denny’s registration. At the time the complaint was filed, there were more than 13,000 children in the Netherlands facing a similar legal position, more than 5,000 of whom have been classed as “unknown” nationality for more than five years. Because Denny lacks a legal residence permit, a requirement under Dutch law to obtain Dutch nationality, he may not be able to obtain Dutch nationality even if his status changes from “unknown” to “stateless.”

Because of Denny’s “unknown” citizenship status, he lives with his mother in a restricted freedom center for failed asylum seekers and their young children. As a result, he has nearly no contact with Dutch society, lives in an atmosphere of fear of deportation and surveillance, and his mother is ineligible for any social benefits beyond a small weekly allowance. The eight restricted freedom centers throughout the Netherlands are intended to act as temporary facilities designed to encourage residents to finalize their deportation, but Denny and his family have been there for three years. The Netherlands requires that children born stateless must hold lawful residence permits for at least three years before they are eligible to apply for Dutch nationality. This requirement contravenes the Netherlands’ obligations as a party to the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which allows States to require habitual residence as a prerequisite to acquiring nationality, but not to insist on legal residence status.

Ms. Zhao’s requests to extend her own residency permit were denied in 2010, a finding that was upheld on appeal. Requests and petitions to change Denny’s status from “unknown” to “stateless” were denied and in May 2014, the Administrative Division of the Dutch Council of State, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands, denied Denny’s final appeal, stating that the solution to Denny’s registration must be a legislative one. 

In November 2016, Ms. Zhao filed a complaint before the UN Human Rights Committee. The complaint on Denny’s behalf argues that his treatment is a breach of Article 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says that every child has the right to acquire a nationality. The complaint urges the Netherlands to take steps to remedy Denny’s situation, and to make the necessary legal changes to end the shortcomings in its nationality law.

On December 29, 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee determined that by registering the child as “nationality unknown”, the Dutch authorities had violated his right to international protection and also to seek a nationality. This was the UN Human Rights Committee's first ever decision on the right of children to acquire nationality.

Open Society Justice Initiative Involvement

The Justice Initiative submitted an individual complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in conjunction with Jelle Klaas of the Public Interest Litigation Project of the Dutch section of the International Commission of Jurists (NJCM).


The complaint argues that the Netherlands’ approach to nationality, residency, and statelessness constitutes a violation of Article 24(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which safeguards a child’s right to acquire a nationality. 

Every Child has the Right to Acquire Nationality. The lack of opportunity for Denny to acquire nationality and his years of legal limbo because of the Netherlands’ approach to addressing statelessness, residency rights, and acquisition of nationality violate the right of every child to acquire a nationality protected by Article 24(3) of the ICCPR.

There is a Positive Obligation to Introduce Safeguards against Childhood Statelessness. Article 24 accords special protections to children in addition to the measures of protection required under Article 2(2) of the Covenant, which require existing legislative or other measures to give effect to the rights in the Covenant. The Netherlands is not meeting its obligation to ensure that every child enjoys the all the rights provided for in the Covenant. The Netherlands must implement safeguards to ensure the end of childhood statelessness.

Failure to Provide an Effective Remedy. The Dutch Council of State, the highest court available to appeal administrative nationality decisions, declared itself incompetent to rectify the legal gap for those with “unknown” nationality status. There is no effective means by which Denny, and children like him, can challenge the lack of protection in the Netherlands. This is a violation of Article 24 in conjunction with Article 2(3) (requiring an effective remedy for those whose rights have been violated).

December 29, 2020

The UN Human Rights Committee determines that by registering the child as “nationality unknown”, the Dutch authorities violated his right to international protection, as well as his right to seek a nationality.

Decision Download the 12-page document. Download
November 23, 2016

Zhao files a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee.

November 02, 2016

The Dutch Council of State declares Denny’s appeal unfounded on the grounds that Denny is not registered as stateless.

March 26, 2015

Denny applies to the municipality of Katwijk to be recognized as a Dutch citizen by option on account of his birth on the territory as a stateless child. The request is rejected and Denny appeals to Dutch administrative courts.

November 22, 2012

Ms. Zhao's aministrative appeal is rejected based on standard of proof.

October 24, 2012

Ms. Zhao, through counsel, lodges an administrative appeal against the Municipality of Utrecht’s decision.

September 17, 2012

Ms. Zhao’s request for entry of Denny’s status as “stateless” is denied.

July 2012

Ms. Zhao submits a request to Utrecht’s civil registration department to register Denny as “stateless” rather than “unknown” nationality.

April 2009-October 2012

Ms. Zhao attempts to clarify her own status with the Chinese embassy and to obtain nationality status for Denny in China and the Netherlands.

February 18, 2010

Denny Zhao is born in Utrecht, Netherlands. 

December 29, 2020
Decision Download the 12-page document. Download

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