Denial and denigration: How discrimination feeds statelessness

Andrea Spitálszky, Europe Legal Officer, Minority Rights Group International (MRG)
/ 5 mins read

Ethnic, national, religious and linguistic minorities make up a disproportionate number of the world’s stateless population. While statelessness may be attributed to state succession, lack of birth registration or migration, in reality discrimination against these communities plays a crucial role in exposing minorities to statelessness. In Europe, one such group is Roma. Thousands are left stateless and struggling to access key services such as education, healthcare and housing. This was the topic of last week’s regional conference in Skopje, which provided an opportunity for key stakeholders to focus attention on statelessness among Roma in the Western Balkans.

It was also an opportunity to present MRG’s recent publication Denial and Denigration: How Racism Feeds Statelessness, which explores the links between identity based discrimination and statelessness. Statelessness has significant negative impacts on a person’s ability to function as a full member of society although these impacts may vary greatly. The Rohingya in Myanmar are not only denied citizenship but they face extreme violence, hate speech and persecution which is driving many of them to flee the country. Although the Rohingya case is an extreme one, the report shows that statelessness related to discrimination also disproportionately affects other minorities and indigenous peoples.

Why are minorities more vulnerable to statelessness?

Statelessness is often not an accident, but a logical outcome of discrimination. Governments may deliberately manipulate nationality law as a tool of repression against particular minorities who they consider belong elsewhere. This can be done to gain political advantage by unifying other groups against the “other”. It can also be done simply to affect demographics that will result in an electoral advantage for one group or party. In Cote d’Ivoire, descendants of laborers brought in by the French came to be denied recognition as nationals because otherwise the balance of electoral power would be upset. Therefore, one of the most direct consequences of statelessness may be the exclusion of minority groups from voting.

Certain factors, like poverty, limited access to justice, or lack of official documentation may elevate an individual’s risk of statelessness, often affecting minorities in particular. Different types of discrimination may be linked to statelessness. It is rare that nationality laws are overtly racist or discriminatory. More often people become stateless through indirect discrimination, when nationality laws appear neutral, but in reality they disproportionately affect minorities. In other cases, nationality laws may be implemented in discriminatory ways by administrators, registrars and officials, especially if they have discretionary power in naturalisation or registration procedures. Moreover, members of minority groups are often not in a position to challenge these decisions either because they are poor, less educated, do not speak the official language, live in remote areas or have a limited understanding of their rights.

Europe’s stateless Roma

In Europe, one of the most vulnerable groups to statelessness is the Roma who have historically been abused, neglected and excluded from majority societies. Stateless Roma are spread across a number of European states, especially Russia, Slovakia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Many Roma who fled the Yugoslavian war as refugees, remain stateless in other European countries, like Italy.

A new report Roma Belong – Statelessness, Discrimination and Marginalisation of Roma in the Western Balkans and Ukraine reveals how statelessness caused by discrimination affects Roma in the region. The report was launched last week at a conference in Skopje by the European Network on Statelessness, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, and the European Roma Rights Centre as part of their #RomaBelong project. The event brought together over 70 international and Roma-led NGOs, lawyers, international agencies, academics and state representatives to discuss the situation of stateless Roma and how it can be improved. There was strong consensus to implement report recommendations  to end Roma statelessness and to improve the situation of the thousands of stateless Roma in the region.

What next?

Governments have to ensure that their national legislation is in line with international human rights standards, especially with the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954), the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965). Public policies must specifically target the root causes of statelessness in each country; their implementation has to be closely monitored. Governments have to evaluate the outcomes of such public policies and identify the remaining gaps to tackle statelessness and discrimination. Awareness-raising among Roma is crucial so that they know about their rights and the different ways in which to challenge statelessness.

The situation of stateless Roma in Europe is rooted not only in state succession and lack of birth registration but also in widespread and deep-seated discrimination against the community. Therefore, tackling discrimination is crucial to ending minority communities’ statelessness around the world.

Minority Rights Group International is a non-governmental organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide and to promote cooperation and understanding between communities. Our activities are focused on international advocacy, training and education, strategic litigation, cultural programmes, research and publications and media work. MRG works with over 150 organizations in over 50 countries.

MRG’s three year EU-funded project “From Action to Equal Rights to Roma” aims to tackle discrimination faced by Roma in Macedonia. Although the programme does not specifically focus on Roma statelessness, it aims to reduce discrimination against Roma through legal work and advocacy, which should in turn improve the situation of stateless Roma as well.

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