Praxis had the pleasure to organize a joint workshop of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and the Western Balkan Legal Aid Network (WeBLAN) on statelessness on 23 April in Belgrade. The event was organized with the support of UNHCR Representation in Serbia and the EU funded project “Best Practices for Roma Integration” (BPRI) implemented by ODIHR in the Western Balkans.
The Western Balkan Legal Aid Network was established in March 2012 in Sarajevo as an independent network of 6 civil society organizations devoted to protection, promotion and improvement of human rights and social inclusion, as well as prevention and reduction of statelessness in the Western Balkans. Members of the WeBLAN are: the Association Vasa Prava from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Civil Rights Programme from Kosovo, Legal Centre from Montenegro, Macedonian Young Lawyers Association from Macedonia, Information Legal Centre from Croatia and Praxis from Serbia. Although established a year ago, the regional cooperation dates back to 2008 when, as UNHCR implementing partners, these organizations commenced the implementation of a regional project aimed at the promotion of social inclusion of marginalized communities in the territory of the Western Balkans.
Apart from UNHCR Serbia and ODIHR/BPRI, UNHCR Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia and Italy participated in the workshop, as well as the Italian Refugee Council and the Tirana Legal Aid Society from Albania.
The aim of the workshop was to highlight issues of statelessness in the Western Balkan countries, the main problems, challenges, legal gaps, populations, as well as on-going activities and progress made so far, exchange examples of good practices, good systemic solutions and promote relevant international standards.
ENS Steering Committee members gave presentations on various issues related to prevention and reduction of statelessness, statelessness determination and protection of stateless persons, litigating statelessness before the international courts and international advocacy on statelessness.
For the purpose of the workshop, the WeBLAN members filled in a research template, previously developed jointly with ENS, containing a description and analysis of the main problems, challenges, legal gaps and on-going activities in the Western Balkans respective countries aimed at prevention and reduction of statelessness. The conducted research and related analysis done by the six WeBLAN members served as a basis for workshop presentations and discussion.
Analysis of national legislation and the situation in practice has been conducted for each country in the Western Balkans region, in order to comprehend the extent of the problem related to exercise of the right to a nationality and to establish who the persons and groups at risk of statelessness are, and what the profile of this population is. The aim was to establish whether national legislation contained protection mechanisms suitable for preventing statelessness, as well as to identify whether it contained relevant regulations or provisions that could provide adequate treatment and enable access to basic rights to stateless persons.
It has been noticed that all countries in the region share certain common problems and that often similar reasons lead to risk of statelessness in each country encompassed by the analysis.
A common characteristic for all countries is untimely registration of the fact of birth of children. Furthermore, in all countries, these are the problems almost exclusively faced by Roma ethnic minority. Even the obstacles to registration of child’s birth are similar: lack of documentation of parents, lack of information, giving birth at home, traditional way of life of persons of Roma ethnicity, etc.
The dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), wars and migrations have also caused problems in exercise of the right to a nationality in almost all above-mentioned countries. After the breakup of the SFRY, there were persons who did not acquire nationality of any state. These persons and their children face difficulties in regulating the issues of nationality and documentation even today. In Serbia, one of the reasons behind this was difficulties related to registration of permanent residence, the problem faced by the most marginalized Roma living in informal settlements.
In some countries, another problem and the cause of difficulties related to proving nationality and identity lay in the fact that some civil registries were destroyed during the conflicts (Serbia, BiH, Montenegro).
Furthermore, complicated administrative procedure was stated as one of causes of risk of statelessness in BiH and Serbia.
Common problem for all countries is the absence of precise (or, in the case of BiH, of any) data on the number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness.
With regard to characteristics of stateless persons, what is common is the fact that those are mainly members of minorities, primarily Roma ethnic minority, the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians. However, situations vary depending on the country of origin of persons at risk of statelessness. In some countries, we are dealing with persons who were born and live in the same country, while in others (e.g. BiH, Kosovo, Croatia) the persons at risk of statelessness are almost exclusively from other countries by origin or their parents are from other countries. With regard to countries these persons come from, those are mainly former Yugoslav republics. The exception in this case is only BiH where persons at risk of statelessness also come from the territory of the Czech Republic.
All countries are either state parties to the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or contain within their respective national legislation the provisions that are in accordance with the Convention. The same applies to the international treaties which indirectly relate to the right to a nationality. The situation is somewhat different with regard to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which has been ratified only by Serbia and Croatia, but it has been pointed out at the workshop that the countries which are not state parties to the Convention have been implementing activities with the aim of acceding to it.
There is no statelessness determination procedure envisaged in any of the countries encompassed by the research and analysis. In some countries – BiH and Serbia – there were cases of statelessness status being determined in ad hoc procedures, without previously prescribed guidelines or rules on the manner and burden of proving statelessness status or on the body competent for the statelessness status determination.
It has been noticed that all countries, whether the state parties to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness or not, contain provisions that should prevent the occurrence of statelessness since birth. National legislature prescribes that foundlings, as well as children born in the territory of the state who would otherwise remain stateless have the right to a nationality of the state they were born in. At the same time, it has, however, been emphasised that one of the difficulties for implementation of the provisions that should prevent occurrence of statelessness since birth could precisely be the fact that the statelessness determination procedure is missing (BiH, Serbia). Even though the law of all the countries in the region provides for the children of stateless persons the right to acquire nationality of the country they were born in, they may be deprived of this right because their parents do not have the possibility to prove their status of stateless persons.
Lack of the prescribed procedure also represents an obstacle to accessing legally guaranteed rights and to obtaining identification documents.
Macedonia and Montenegro are the only countries that have prescribed facilitated naturalization of stateless persons. In both countries, the more favourable conditions are reflected in omitting requests related to the knowledge of language. Besides, in Montenegro, a stateless person neither has to fulfil conditions related to provided accommodation and guaranteed source of income in the amount that provides for material and social security. In Macedonia, more favourable conditions are also reflected in the fact that the requested duration of stay in the country is shorter – 6 years, instead of 8 years required in the case of regular naturalization. However, one of the reasons for which stateless persons would not be able to benefit from facilitated naturalization is precisely absence of the statelessness determination procedure.
Bearing in mind that there is no mechanism for identification and systemic protection of stateless persons, Praxis activities in the future will precisely be directed at introduction of the statelessness determination procedure in Serbia. During 2012, together with UNHCR, Praxis and members of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) will work on the development of a simple and accessible guidance document, which could be suitable for wider use in the region, based on the comparative analysis and experience of the countries that have already prescribed specific statelessness determination procedures, and a discussion note which should provide suggestions on how to transpose this guidance document to the Serbian context. Moreover, documents will be presented to the relevant authorities for further discussion.