“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Working towards the eradication of statelessness in South Eastern Europe

31 January 2014 | Inge Sturkenboom, UNHCR

Several contributors have reported on this website on statelessness in South Eastern Europe and on initiatives to strengthen civil registration and documentation in the region that contribute to the reduction of statelessness.

Initiatives to improve civil registration

The Memorandum of Understanding in Serbia to address problems of (birth) registration, the regional collaboration of legal aid organizations, and the transfer of registry books from Serbia to Pristina are among such initiatives.

These steps, as well as other legal, administrative and practical measures throughout South Eastern Europe are described in the report entitled ‘Access to Civil Documentation and Registration in South Eastern Europe: Progress and Remaining Challenges since the 2011 Zagreb Declaration’. The report was prepared as a background document for the regional conference on this topic held in Podgorica in October 2013. The meeting was organized by the Ministry of the Interior of Montenegro and supported by the European Commission, UNHCR and the OSCE High Commissioner on National

Minorities. Stéphanie Marsal of the Office of the OSCE-HCNM contributed to this website to describe the build-up to this conference.  

The report shows particular attention to the promotion of birth registration, from legislative amendments (like in Serbia) and the enhanced roles of social welfare offices (like in Bosnia and Herzegovina), to practical measures like the deployment of mobile teams (for example in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and the use of SMS technology to collect information on children without birth registration documents (in Kosovo*).  

Other good practices include steps to facilitate the registration of residence, often one of the necessary steps for the acquisition of identity and citizenship documents. In Croatia, persons living in informal settlements are allowed to register their residence at social welfare centers. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the process is expedited by facilitating the registration of residence for a period in the past. Montenegro showed its commitment to address statelessness by acceding to the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness in December 2013. Almost all countries in the region are now State Parties to both UN statelessness conventions.

Recommendations for further improvement

Challenges persist however, and over 20,000 persons of undetermined nationality or stateless are estimated to remain in South Eastern Europe. The co-chairs of the meeting in Podgorica formulated recommendations to the participants that can be found here. The authorities are invited to set up comprehensive and systemic solutions, preferably through formal arrangements, that go beyond the case-by-case approach. Improved data collection on the persons assisted and the persons who are still in need of assistance is also necessary in order to monitor the level of implementation of the laws and identify remaining or additional gaps. By enhancing bilateral exchanges at the working level it should be possible to find alternative ways of assisting undocumented individuals that do not require cross border travel. Finally, it should be possible to exempt socially vulnerable individuals from fees for civil registration and documentation.

This joint initiative of the European Commission, the HCNM- OSCE and UNHCR does not stand alone. The substance of the discussions and the recommendations will be reviewed in the context of the country-specific "Social Inclusion seminars on Roma issues" held between the European Commission and EU candidate countries and potential candidates, as well as under the "EU framework" on Roma issues.

At a more global level, the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Programme adopted on 17 October 2013 a conclusion on civil registration. In the Conclusion, States are encouraged to undertake, in accordance with its own laws and, as appropriate, in cooperation and with the support from UNHCR, any necessary legal and practical measures to overcome the difficulties in conducting civil registration, including through establishing or strengthening existing institutions responsible for civil registration, building their capacity and ensuring the safety and confidentiality of their records.

Efforts to this effect are underway in South Eastern Europe. Twenty years after the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, it should be possible to close the chapter on statelessness in the region.   

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/1999 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

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