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Stateless Roma: no documents – no rights

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 17/08/2010
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Tens of thousands of Roma live in Europe without a nationality. Lacking birth certificates, identity cards, passports and other documents, they are often denied basic rights such as education, healthcare, social assistance and the right to vote.

The exclusion and marginalisation that Roma persons already experience is even worse for those who are stateless. The problem exists in many countries in Europe, but it is particularly acute in the Western Balkans.

Some states born out of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia adopted restrictive citizenship rules that particularly left Roma out. In Slovenia, for example, thousands of people, a considerable number of them Roma, were erased from the registry of permanent residents in 1992, the year after the country became independent.

In other countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, Roma who seek regularisation often face complicated administrative procedures and excessive fees.

Conflicts also worsened the situation. For example, many Roma from Kosovo* were forced to flee for their lives, and documents were lost, destroyed or displaced. With lower levels of education and a problem of missing papers – in some cases inherited through generations – it was all the more difficult for many of them to acquire the documents necessary for life and rights in the new states.

Legal aid through UNHCR

With political will, it should not be impossible to put an end to this injustice. Indeed, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has provided Roma with legal aid and thereby made it possible for approximately 11,000 Roma to obtain personal documents and gain access to basic rights in the different countries of South-Eastern Europe.

The main responsibility to address this problem lies ultimately with the governments of the countries in the region. However, until legal and administrative frameworks are functioning it is crucial that UNHCR and its implementing partners be able to continue this urgent work.

Important steps to solve the problem

We know what needs to be done. At a Council of Europe Conference in Skopje in June, strategic actions were defined which included a more systematic analysis of the hidden problems as well as the necessary changes in legislation and administrative procedures. The Conference highlighted important actions, such as:

  • Providing free legal aid for proceedings aimed at securing documentation.
  • Waiving fees for civil registration for those in destitution.
  • Making it possible to establish personal status through simplified procedures such as witnesses’ testimonials when no other evidence can be obtained.
  • Strengthening the role of the Ombudsman institutions to solve these issues.
  • Governments should commit to these and other measures by adopting clear and workable action plans, with Roma participation.

Stateless children still forcibly returned

Other states should also refrain from policies that make the situation worse. For instance, western European states should stop forcibly returning Roma to Kosovo. A UNICEF report indicates that 38% of the Roma returned from Germany are stateless. The situation is even worse for children, with 42% of those who have lived, and often also were born, abroad during or after the war not being registered today.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly stipulates that children have the right to acquire a nationality – in other words, the host country has an obligation to ensure that children do have a nationality. The fact that their parents are stateless is no excuse.

The right to a nationality is a basic human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It amounts to a “right to have rights”. This right – for everyone - must be enforced with much more energy and determination than has been the case so far.

Thomas Hammarberg

* "All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo."