“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Out of Limbo: Promoting the right of stateless Roma people to a legal status in Italy

12 November 2013 | Elena Rozzi – Member of ASGI’s Board and coordinator of the project Out of Limbo

A significant proportion of Roma people originating from the Balkans and living in Italy are stateless or at risk of statelessness. In most cases they lack a residence permit or other identity documents. As undocumented persons, they have no or limited access to social services, health care, education, employment and housing as well as no political rights. They also risk receiving expulsion orders and being detained in a detention centre.

 An estimated 15.000 Roma children born in Italy find themselves in such a limbo of legal invisibility and without basic rights, even though their families have been living for decades in Italy.[1] 

According to the Italian law on citizenship, children born in Italy to non-nationals who have not been recognized as stateless persons, do not acquire Italian citizenship at birth. Many Roma children also do not acquire the parents’ State of origin’s citizenship. This renders them stateless. Roma migrants originating from the Balkans often do not register their children with their State of origin’s Consulate, because of bureaucratic barriers or for fear that registration would facilitate the family’s deportation. In some cases, the parents never received the citizenship of any of the new States arising from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

 Despite Italy having both an administrative and a judicial statelessness determination procedure which can result in the grant of a residence permit, in reality very few stateless persons actually receive this status.

To submit an application for the recognition of the stateless status to the Ministry of Interior, applicants are required to demonstrate that they have legal residence. But undocumented stateless persons are not allowed to register their residence. As a consequence, the administrative statelessness determination procedure is in practice not accessible. Applications can also be directly submitted to the Court of Rome, but this judicial procedure is quite expensive and lengthy. Moreover, both the Ministry of Interior and some judges apply very restrictive criteria and reject applications by persons that, according to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the UNHCR Guidelines on Statelessness, should be recognized as stateless.

 After a very long silence, since 2011 the issue of stateless Roma people has been raised in a number of reports and recommendations by international organizations, national institutions and NGOs.[2] The recent establishment of a Working Group on the legal status of Roma people under the National Roma Inclusion Strategy, including competent Ministries and UNHCR, as well as an ensuing lively debate on the reform of the law on citizenship in favour of jus soli create a momentum that can provide a real  opening for change.

 To contribute to the improvement of policies, regulations and practices that perpetuate the lack of a legal status by undocumented and stateless migrants of Roma origin in Italy, ASGI (Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration), in partnership with the NGOs Associazione 21 Luglio and Fondazione Romanì, in September 2013 started the project OUT OF LIMBO.

 The one and a half year long project, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations, aims:

 a) to strengthen the legal competences and advocacy capacity of Roma and non Roma practitioners working with Roma communities in Italy, as well as their links with expert lawyers, so that they can play the role of “community-based paralegals”[3] and promote the access of undocumented and stateless Roma persons to a legal status, assisting them in individual documentation cases, advocating on local authorities and promoting community education activities: the “community-based paralegals” will participate in two residential training workshops, will receive support by expert lawyers in individual documentation cases and will exchange experiences through an online platform;

 b) to promote strategic litigation in order to produce changes in the policies, regulations and legislation concerning statelessness, the acquisition of Italian citizenship and the regularization of the legal status of undocumented Roma migrants on humanitarian grounds;

 c) to promote evidence-based advocacy, documenting the obstacles that prevent undocumented and stateless Roma migrants from getting a legal status and the possible solutions to address these obstacles, from the stories and experiences of the cases supported by paralegals and lawyers: the final report of the project will be presented in a conference in early 2015;

 d) to  increase the visibility on traditional and social media of the rights violations that undocumented and stateless Roma people suffer as well as the possible solutions, in order to raise policy makers and public opinion's awareness on the issue and promote the consensus on the need for change.

 We hope that the project OUT OF LIMBO will make a real contribution to improving the protection of stateless persons and the prevention of statelessness in Italy. And we wish that, through the European Network on Statelessness’ campaigns and activities, the positive outcomes hopefully achieved in Italy will be inspiring for other States and the EU institutions.

 [1] Report by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, following his visit to Italy from 26 to 27 May 2011.

[2] See Report by Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, following his visit to Italy, 3-6 July 2012; ECRI, Report on Italy, 2012; UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations for Italy's 3rd and 4th Periodic Reports, 2011; Italian National Strategy for the Inclusion of Roma, Sinti and Caminanti Communities - European Commission Communication No.173/2011, 2012, pp. 14-17 ; CIR, “IN THE SUN - Survey on the phenomenon of statelessness among Roma communities living in Italy”, 2012 [abstract]; conference “The legal status of Roma and Sinti in Italy”, organized in 2010 by ASGI, in cooperation with the University of Milan and Open Society Foundations.

[3] A “community-based paralegal” is a person that has basic knowledge of the legal system; is a member of the community or part of an organization that works in the community; has community organizing and communication skills and working relationships with local authorities. See: Open Society Justice Initiative, “Community-Based Paralegals: A Practitioner's Guide”, 2010.

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