How to square a circle: contemplating the shades of minority statelessness

Dr Julija Sardelić, Marie Curie Skłodowska Postdoctoral Fellow LINES – Leuven International and European Studies, University of Leuven
/ 7 mins read

In present times, ever more people dream of not being tied up to a certain state and becoming ‘citizens of everywhere’. This post-national dream entails crossing boundaries with great ease and being able to integrate without obstacles. Only a small number of people can actually live the dream of being 'citizens of everywhere'. But, in order to become a ‘citizens of everywhere’, you still need to initially be a ‘citizen of somewhere’.

Not being recognized as a 'citizen of somewhere' and being a ‘citizen of nowhere’ is a rather nightmarish reality for at least 10 million people around the globe. Indicatively the most recent data shows that more than 75 percent of these individuals belong to a minority group. Not all minorities are vulnerable to statelessness, but particularly those who have in the past been either discriminated or marginalized, such as the Romani minorities in Europe. These alarming findings call both for a novel theoretical as well as a practical reconsideration of why are minorities over-represented among stateless people and what are the different shades of statelessness they are facing. 

Different shades of statelessness

It was in 1951 when Hannah Arendt coined her famous definition of citizenship as “the right to have rights” in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The definition of a stateless person dates back to the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Both Arendt’s definition of citizenship as well as the 1954 Convention’s definition of a stateless person as a “person who is not a national of any state” were a response to events in a particular time and place, namely the situation of Jews on the European continent after the Second World War (WWII). Consequently, and as new research demonstrates, the definition of a stateless person from the 1954 Convention (as well as Arendt’s concept of citizenship), often falls short of comprehending the new shades of statelessness that came into existence since, especially when it comes to the position of stateless minorities.

The 1954 and the subsequent 1961 Convention could not foresee the quandary of stateless Palestinian refugees, Bidoons from Kuwait and United Arab Emirates nor the predicament of  Rohingya from Myanmar also dubbed “the most persecuted minority”.

Roma have been also stripped of citizenship during the WWII similarly as the Jews. However, after the 1990s many Roma became stateless once again. The new reasons why they became stateless push the limits of comprehending what statelessness is and shows that it has many different shades. Today’s cases of stateless minorities demonstrate, that even in those cases where these minority individuals have the rights to citizenship, it is ineffective or they cannot prove it. Hence they are effectively stateless, although legally they do not strictly fall into the definition of statelessness.

Why do minorities become stateless? The case of Roma in Europe

While the UNHCR Report has shown that most individuals who are stateless belong to minority groups, it cannot be concluded that all minorities are more likely to become stateless. It is the minorities whose position is marked by the vicious circle of discrimination and marginalization, which are more vulnerable to statelessness. As my research has shown, this is the case for Roma in Europe. They became stateless through a variety of different circumstances: from armed conflicts (former Yugoslavia) to state succession (Czechoslovakia) and forced migration (Italy), but also after the post-socalist transitions, where there was no war, but the legislation made it more difficult to register births (Romania). These cases show that everyday statelessness is much more elusive from its initial definition put down in the 1954 Convention where it is simply limited to a group of people without any nationality. It arises through a combination of intentional and unintentional factors, as discrimination and marginalization often legitimized as ‘acceptable’ in many societies.

I have first come across the issues faced by stateless Roma, while working on a CITSEE Research Project at the University of Edinburgh in 2012. The project was exploring the impact the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the establishment of new states had on citizenship. I have started conducting research on how Roma were positioned as citizens and a minority in the post-Yugoslav states. However, very early in my research, while visiting many Roma communities I had been faced with a certain paradox. While states in question did introduce minority protection that included Roma, a large number of them did not have access to rights granted to them as a minority group. In fact, in virtually every community that I have visited during my field research (from Slovenia to Kosovo) there were a number of people, who were legally invisible – without documents to prove their existence. This meant that in addition to not having access to rights as a minority, they also did not have access to many other rights related to the status of a citizen or even a resident, such as the right to work, right to access healthcare, right to education, etc. There were no direct discriminatory provisions that prevented Roma from acquiring citizenship in the newly established states, however past discrimination, marginalization and racism towards Roma significantly contributed to their uneven access to citizenship. For example, in Article 8 (4) Croatian Citizenship Law requires an individuals, who wishes to naturalize, to be also “proficient in the Croatian Language and Latin Script”. While this is not directly discriminatory towards Roma, an ECtHR Court Case showed that Roma were still discriminated against in schools (via segregation and lower quality of education). Hence there is a disproportionate number of illiterate Roma in Croatia. An illiterate Romani woman could not acquire Croatian citizenship, although she was a resident of Croatia for number of decades, because she could not prove proficiency in Latin script.

I argued previously that Roma in the former Yugoslav states have found themselves in a specific kind of in-betweenness. They faced many difficulties accessing their citizenship due to the lack of birth documents and laws that indirectly discriminated against them as described above. At the same time, many of them had difficulties also in acquiring the status of a stateless person, as highlighted in the last week’s ENS blog. Not having access to citizenship does not necessarily translate into not being a national of any state, which is a condition to be legally recognized as a stateless person. This raises another paradox Roma in the post-Yugoslav states, as well as in many other places around Europe (where there was no war) are faced with. While not having access to citizenship, they also lack the access to acquire statelessness status. This means that they are not able to gain rights from their citizenship, neither from their statelessness status. This legal limbo is just one of the shades of statelessness that many minorities are faced with and is yet to be research and addressed through legal definitions.

Addressing the position of stateless minorities

For some time, the position of stateless Roma seemed to have disappeared from the agenda. However, due to very persistent grassroot NGO activism (by many of the NGOs I have met during my initial fieldwork), their predicament is again being highlighted: and rightly so. In 2014 UNHCR published their Global Action Plan to End Statelessness by 2024. While the Global Action Plan does not mention Roma concretely, it does note that minorities in particular are vulnerable to statelessness and explores the new reasons for it as well as how to address them. The cover page of the Global Action Plan does portray a Roma girl from Croatia who was stateless. A new pan-European alliance of NGOs has been formed to address Roma statelessness and the European Roma Rights Centre in cooperation with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and the European Network on Statelessness published a report entitled Roma Belong: Statelessness, Discrimination and Marginalization of Roma in the Western Balkans and Ukraine. Roma statelessness also made it to the agenda of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, including possible recognition by the court that Roma in Europe facing statelessness might not fit the classical definition of statelessness.

How to square a circle?

While statelessness is caused by particular vulnerabilities and causes new vulnerabilities, it must not be forgotten at the same time that Roma, but also of other minorities, show extreme resilience when faced wit hthe severe conditions of statelessness. They need to survive without having the right to work and the right to access healthcare, as it can take years until their position is resolved. The Roma Belong publication has showed that some of the representatives of public authorities still believe that it is the lack of interest of Roma that is the main cause of statelessness. On the contrary, the reality shows that most of the stateless individuals show a lot more interest in regularizing their own citizenship status than those who simply take it for granted. The fact that there are many different shades of statelessness beyond its initial definition indicates that the fight of stateless individuals sometimes resembles an ancient mathematical quandary of how to square a circle. In the end they cannot fit the circle of their statelessness into the square which is the legal definition of statelessness. Now it is up to the national and international authorities to stop solely focusing on the square, and start addressing the circle of minority statelessness.

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