International Waters – What If You Were Born There?

From pilgrims to famines, for most of history, people have moved to find new lands and opportunities. Often you’d be sponsored by your home country or the country you’re heading to, so determining the citizenship of a baby born at sea was not as much of a problem in the past as it is today. So, what happens when you're born in the high seas?
International Waters

What Happens When You’re Born in the High Seas

International Waters?
“Cruise – ship exterior – June 2018” by Gregory Varnum is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Imagine finding yourself on a ship in the middle of the sea after just having been rescued from an overcrowded dinghy full of other desperate refugees fleeing your war-torn homeland. (International Waters) You’re exhausted and terrified…oh yeah, and you’re also 9 months pregnant- which is a bit of a medical miracle because at least half our audience is male.

After all the stress you’ve been through, you find yourself going into labour right there on the ship, still hundreds of miles from shore. Thankfully there is a doctor on board, and within a few hours you have your healthy baby boy in your arms. You name him Miracle, which seems fitting considering the circumstances of his birth. 

Searching for a better life

LE Eithne Operation Triton
rish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton.“Photo by Irish Defence Forces is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There’s a reason you were fleeing your home country – you want your son to have a better life, and hopefully that means citizenship in a new country. But your little miracle happened in international waters – what does that mean for your son’s citizenship? 


This may seem like a wild story, but actually it’s 100% true. In May 2018 a baby boy named Miracle was just one of dozens of babies born on Italian humanitarian ships in the first half 2018 alone.

Although pretty rare now, it used to be much more common to give birth in international waters. When travelling by ship was your only option and ocean crossings took many months, births at sea were a fairly regular occurrence. According to an 1851 British census, more than 3,000 British babies were born at sea that year alone!

It’s hard to imagine boarding a ship for a 3-month long journey near the end of your pregnancy, but desperation plays a huge role in migration. During the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, more than 8,000 Irish babies were born at sea. 33 babies were born on a single crossing to New York in 1848!


Births at sea Tenderness Maternity Beach Birth Pregnancy Belly 3349744
Tenderness Maternity Beach Birth Pregnancy Belly

From pilgrims to famines, for most of history, people have moved to find new lands and opportunities. Often you’d be sponsored by your home country or the country you’re heading to, so determining the citizenship of a baby born at sea was not as much of a problem in the past as it is today.

If you had been one of the pilgrims travelling to the New World on the Mayflower, you would have witnessed the birth of Oceanus Hopkins, the first baby born on the ship in 1620. Since his parents were British (and since Atlantis isn’t accepting new citizenship applications, last time we checked), little Oceanus’ British citizenship was undisputed. 

Births at sea are much more rare in modern times. With the advent of flying, you no longer have to deal with drawn-out travel by boat, and most airlines and cruise ships won’t allow you to travel towards the end of your pregnancy to avoid on-board births. 

NORMANDIE IMO 9006253 RO RO PASSENGER SHIP 27451 tons. 11610153266
Photoby Andrew Thomas is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A common occurrence

Still, despite the precautions, data shows that births on airplanes are more common than you might think. German airline Lufthansa’s website claims that 11 babies have been born on their planes alone since 1965! In 2014 a woman who was 32 weeks pregnant with twins went into premature labor at 35,000 feet. Her first baby was born in the air, and the second arrived just as the plane landed in Russia. Even more bizarre is the story of a Canadian woman who didn’t even know she was pregnant until she went into labor in the middle of a flight from Canada to Japan! 

Even though planes have replaced ships as our primary means of long-distance travel, at-sea births do still happen, and it’s much more complicated in today’s political and geographical climate than in the past. Just like during the Irish Potato Famine, people still take to the seas in search of a better life in a new land. Many of those people, like baby Miracle’s mother, are desperate enough to undertake a dangerous journey late in their pregnancy. 

There is even a phenomenon called “birth tourism”. That’s what it’s called when you travel to a specific country near your due date for the purpose of giving birth there so that your child will be a citizen of that country. But you’d better check local regulations before you book that flight to Pyongyang near your due date – not all countries will automatically give you citizenship just because you were born on their soil. 

right International Waters
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The story of Baby Miracle

That’s exactly the situation that baby Miracle finds himself in. Since he was born in international waters on board an Italian ship, no doubt his parents are hoping that the circumstances of his birth will make him an Italian citizen. But how does Italy feel about that? 

How do you gain citizenship?

There are two types of laws governing citizenship. If a country recognizes the law of jus soli, meaning “right of soil”, you would be eligible for citizenship if you were born in that country’s territory, which includes their territorial airspace and waters. The U.S, Canada and Brazil are just some of the countries that recognize citizenship based on the principle of “right of soil”. 

However, most European countries, including Italy, recognize the law of jus sanguinis, or “right of blood”. Even if you are born in one of these countries, one or both of your parents must have legally lived in that country for you to be entitled to citizenship at birth. 

Advertisements Girl Toddler Sleep Child Portrait Sweet Baby 1151351
International Waters - What If You Were Born There? 12

What if you’re born on a cruise?

But what if you are born on a vessel in international waters? That makes things a bit more complicated. Some “right of soil” countries recognize ships registered in that country and flying their flag as their territory. So, if you’re born on a ship flying the flag of a country like Costa Rica that recognizes jus soli, you’d be eligible for Costa Rican citizenship at birth. 

This is not the case for countries that recognize jus sanguinis, or “birthright by blood”, such as Switzerland, India, and, yes, Italy. These countries require at least one of your parents to have legally lived in that country for you to be eligible for citizenship. Unfortunately, that means that baby Miracle would not automatically be eligible for Italian citizenship, even if he had been born in an Italian hospital on land instead of on the open sea. 

The citizenship intervention by the UN

800px United Nations General Assembly
United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

In response to a growing number of “stateless” refugees, in 1961 the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness called for more European countries to grant citizenship to babies born to refugees on ships and aircraft registered in their countries. Inspired by this Convention, Italy has relaxed the rules a bit in recent years, and some refugees may be able to claim citizenship under jus soli rules. Maybe baby Miracle will get his own “miracolo” and be granted Italian citizenship. 


But wait, it gets even more complicated! What if you were born on a ship in international waters to parents from two different countries on a ship flying the flag of a third country with jus soli citizenship laws? In that case, you could actually have three citizenships at birth – the citizenship of both of your parents’ home countries, as well as citizenship of the country that owns the ship you were born on. Clearly, if you’re going to be born at sea, it’s in your best interests to be born on a ship flying the flag of a country with “right of soil” laws.

What if you’re born in space?

But what about the citizenship of babies born on airplanes? There’s an ancient legal concept from the 13th century, called the Ad Coelum Doctrine, which states that “whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way up to heaven and down to hell”. This is the basis for modern airspace laws, although it has obviously changed since the invention of airplanes.

While countries don’t have unlimited ownership of the space above their soil, most do consider the space where commercial planes fly to be part of their territory. Furthermore, planes registered to a country are generally also considered to be that country’s territory. 

Global airspace
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Based on what we know about “right of blood” and “right of soil” citizenship laws, the citizenship of  a baby born on an airplane will depend on which country the plane is registered in, as well as which country’s airspace you happen to be flying through at the time of the birth.

If your plane is registered in a Jus Soli country, or you are flying through the airspace of one of these “right of soil” countries, you could be eligible for citizenship in that country, even if it’s parents are not citizens of that country. In his book Unruly Places, author and Professor of Social Geography Alastair Bonnett explains that even “if you are born over the United States, in a foreign plane with foreign parents, you can still claim U.S. citizenship”. How generous! 

Although it’s much less common than at other points in history, births in international waters still happen. Refugees are the most vulnerable to being born stateless, and with growing refugee crises around the world, births at sea are once again on the rise. Determining your citizenship if you are born in international waters can be more than a little challenging in today’s political climate – just ask the parents of baby Miracle! 


The law of the land dictates your citizenship

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

A good rule of thumb if you’re born in international waters or in international airspace is that you’ll inherit your mother’s citizenship. Your eligibility for citizenship in other countries will depend on the laws of the country in question. Countries like the U.S. and Canada, with “right of soil” laws, will grant you citizenship if you are born in their territory, which includes any ships or planes registered in that country. Many European countries, where “right of blood” rules, will only grant you citizenship if at least one of your parents has legally lived in the country. 

Famous personalities born in global seas

Itamar Franco, former President of Brazil, was born prematurely on a cruise ship in 1930
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Believe it or not, some notable figures in modern history were born at sea. Itamar Franco, former President of Brazil, was born prematurely on a cruise ship in 1930 – his mother named him Itamar after the boat they were on, the Ita, and the Portugese word for sea, mar. French footballer Rio Antonio Mavuba was born on a ship in international waters in 1984 to refugee parents fleeing the civil war in Angola. 

Determining your citizenship when you’re born in international waters or international airspace can be complicated, to say the least. But whatever citizenship – or citizenships – you end up with, your birth certificate will always list your place of birth as “at sea” or “in the air”, which is pretty unique. 


So, what do you think it would be like to be “stateless”? Do you think countries should extend citizenship to babies born in international waters or international airspace? What do you think will happen to baby Miracle? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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