“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

ENS Interview: Eradicating childhood statelessness in Serbia

15 December 2016

ENS caught up with Ivanka Kostić, Executive Director of Praxis and ENS trustee, as well as Dijana Dacković and Ivana Radojković, two ENS youth ambassadors who've been working tirelessly on the #StatelessKids campaign. Praxis is a leading Serbian civil society organisation dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights. Serbia was one of seven priority countries for the #StatelessKids campaign where ENS worked in partnership with its members to raise awareness and promote measures to ensure that children can realise their right to a nationality.

We spoke to Ivanka, Dijana and Ivana about the #Statlesskids campaign successes, challenges and their future plans for national level work.

What's the main issue in Serbia (and the Balkan region) when it comes to childhood statelessness?

Ivanka Kostić: Actually, statelessness is an issue Serbia made big improvements in addressing following nearly 10 years of intensive advocacy by civil society organisations and international agencies. Past legislative changes and better practices have helped both to prevent new cases of statelessness and to find solutions for persons who have been living without citizenship or proof of citizenship for many years. Despite this, some important gaps both in legislation and practice remain, and must be addressed if we are to fully solve the issue of statelessness. In particular, in order to prevent childhood statelessness and to fulfill obligations stemming from Serbia’s international obligations and its constitution, it is necessary to ensure that every child is registered immediately at birth without discrimination and regardless of his/her parents’ status. According to the Serbian rules and regulations, a child of undocumented parents cannot be registered until his/her parents (or at least the mother), regulate their status and obtain documents. As a result, both the registration of children and the safeguards against statelessness are dependent on the parents’ status. Although Serbian officials on a number of occasions announced that the introduction of electronic procedures for data and document exchange between civil registrars and other authorities involved in the birth registration procedure would ensure improved cooperation, and more importantly, the lawful and effective exercise of the right to birth registration within the stipulated time limit, this remains to be implemented in a systematic way. Legislative changes are also still needed in this field.

What activities did you prioritise under the #StatelessKids campaign banner and what do you see as the biggest success of the campaign?

Dijana Dacković and Ivana Radojković: We focused on raising awareness about statelessness among the young people in Belgrade through informal meetings. Because we organized meetings in partnership with Youth Offices in Belgrade, which are part of local authorities, we managed not only to talk to young people about the issue, but also to involve representatives of local authorities to participate in our meetings, which might be the most significant achievement of our campaign. Also, one of our big accomplishments is that we distributed around 500 postcards to Law Faculty students on the European Law Students Association Day. This meant reaching out to a large group of young people, in this case future lawyers, who are as a result more knowledgeable and might take up dealing with this issue in the future.

Ivanka: Being used to targeting mostly policy makers, we see effective engagement of young people, who didn’t know anything about statelessness before, as the biggest success of the campaign. Their response, their empathy and the willingness to sign the #StatelessKids petition as a way to take part in the campaign was particularly encouraging. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the media was interested in the issue and covered our actions and activities during the campaign.

#StatelessKids - Serbia

You've worked a lot with young people and targeting municipalities with a large proportion of Roma to help raise awareness about birth registration and risk of statelessness. Why that audience and how did they respond to the issue?

Dijana and Ivana: We wanted young people to be aware that children at risk of statelessness exist in their close surroundings, that they probably see them on the streets and maybe even know some of them. On the other hand, we were almost sure that they couldn’t even imagine how many difficulties and rejections they face every day as a result of being stateless. And that was confirmed during the campaign - when working with high school students, we noticed that literally none of them had heard of the term “statelessness” before. However they quickly became interested in the topic and reacted very emotionally to the ENS video “No child should be stateless” saying that “statelessness is not fair”. In addition, when talking with Youth Offices’ volunteers and different activists who knew slightly more about the issue, we encouraged them to help us in the campaign by sharing relevant posts and by calling others to sign the petition. Law students, as well as some NGO workers engaged in the refugee crisis, were mostly interested in the interaction between migration and statelessness.

This year ENS worked with 35 youth ambassadors who attended the first ever youth congress on statelessness and helped with the campaign outreach work. As a youth ambassador, what were the main opportunities and challenges working on the issue?

Dijana and Ivana: The experience provided us with an opportunity to learn about statelessness from experts, both at the international and national level, to exchange experiences, knowledge and ideas with youth ambassadors from the region and other European countries. We came back to Serbia prepared and highly motivated to share our knowledge and raise awareness about this pressing problem. Although we are satisfied with our accomplishments, it wasn't easy. Our biggest challenge was to involve more people at the national level. In order to organize each meeting, we first needed to explain to those we were addressing why it was important that more people hear about statelessness. This was a problem mostly because even people who helped us with organization of the events knew little or nothing about it. As this is unfortunately not a very popular issue, we first needed to educate them, so that they would allow us to educate others. But in the end, it wasn't a waste of time. Now, we can say that members of Youth Offices across Belgrade are interested and informed about statelessness, and more importantly are willing to host and support events and actions related to the issue.

What's the next big challenge in terms of your work on helping end statelessness in Europe?

Dijana and Ivana: Throughout the #StatelessKids campaign we successfully reached out and effectively communicated with young people and many organizations that are focused on youth. So the next big challenge is to try get in direct contact with the decision makers and persuade them that it is necessary to do more in order to completely resolve this issue in Serbia. Also, it would be useful  to secure more media coverage. If media gets interested, so will the decision makers, and vice versa. And that would be a big step forward in tackling the issue. Finally, we strongly believe that no one can fight this problem alone. That’s why we will try to cooperate more with the organizations involved in eradicating statelessness and other Youth Ambassadors from the region.

Ivanka: Praxis will continue to advocate both at the national and international level to secure the right of every child to be registered immediately upon birth. We will also monitor the implementation of laws and regulations related to birth registration and nationality, while also trying to get local institutions more involved in providing free legal aid in these cases. Advocating for the introduction of statelessness determination procedure into our legal system remains one of our strategic goals. Finally, we want to support Dijana and Ivana, and all the other young people interested in the issue, to work together on awareness raising and education about statelessness and its consequences, and the need to eradicate it.

Being an ENS advisory committee member and indeed one of the founding members of ENS – what are the main advantages of working as a part of a pan-European network and how can we collaborate even closer in the fight to eradicate statelessness in the future?

Ivanka: One of the advantages of being an ENS advisory committee member is the possibility to share ownership of common goals and ideas with other ENS members - organizations and individuals. Being a member enables us to considerably strengthen our advocacy work, to exchange information, skills, experience, materials, and offers many opportunities for collaboration, as well as peer support and motivation. Joint advocacy work helps outreach by appealing to a wider population base, and enhances the credibility and influence of advocacy campaigns, as well as that of individual network members. In order to eradicate statelessness in the future we should continue expanding the network of youth ambassadors, training them on statelessness and engaging them in ENS future campaigns.

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