In November 2021, the 8th International Roma Women’s Conference took place in a hybrid format, organised by the Council of Europe’s Roma and Travellers Team in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy of North Macedonia. The following piece explores the urgent issues that arose for Roma women and girls affected by statelessness during the pandemic and summarises recommendations made to member states, Roma and pro-Roma civil society.
According to the key recommendations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its Global Action Plan to end Statelessness 2014-2024, states have a duty to issue nationality documentation and ensure through birth registration and safeguards in their nationality laws that no child is born stateless. Nationality is a human right.
During the 8th International Roma Women’s Conference on 24-26th November 2021 on Protecting the Human Rights and Dignity of Roma and Traveller Women in Times of Crises, the pressing issue of the consequences of statelessness and lack of ID in times of global crisis was emphasised by presenters and attendees.
“The risk and consequences of statelessness on pregnant Roma women during the COVID-19 sanitary crisis, including evictions, is significant” - Senada Sali, European Roma Rights Centre
“The impact of COVID-19 on civil registration and documentation was severe as, in some countries, birth registrations were not declared as an essential service during the pandemic” - Lena Haap, Statelessness Officer, UNHCR Regional Bureau for Europe, Geneva
The basic right to a nationality (citizenship) ensures access to other associated social rights such healthcare, education, housing, and employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic health crisis, access to healthcare was fundamental to ensuring the treatment of persons infected and curbing infection rates. However, the general lack of access to healthcare caused by lack of identification documents or (risk of) statelessness placed some Roma communities in dire situations. This vulnerability made them easy targets and they were blamed and scapegoated by some politicians for spreading the virus. This had particularly detrimental effects on Roma girls and women.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by statelessness and lack of identification documents. In some countries, bylaws on birth registration require the mother to present her birth certificate and identity document to be able to register the birth of her child. Women giving birth at home rather than in a healthcare setting also face major barriers to registration due to the additional documentation and procedures required. Furthermore, the strict lockdown measures added yet another layer of obstacles to registering births. This situation perpetuates the cycle of poverty and marginalisation because if a mother is stateless or paperless herself, her child will be too, and this administrative invisibility will severely hamper the child’s chances at a dignified and equal life.
Discussions during the 8th International Roma Women’s Conference highlighted the challenges faced by Roma women and girls when it comes to access to civil status and equal nationality rights, such as:
- Access to socio-economic rights;
- Access to birth registration and parental rights;
- Violence against women and girls;
- Absence of Roma women’s expertise from debates and discussions on statelessness and legal identity.
They also revealed concrete cases of Roma women impacted by their stateless or paperless status during the COVID-19 pandemic. One notable example was the eviction by the Belgian authorities of a settlement in April 2020, which resulted in several young pregnant women having no access to maternity care because of a lack of personal documents. Another was the tragic death of a pregnant 37-year-old Roma woman and her unborn child outside a hospital in Skopje, North Macedonia in March 2021, while she was waiting for the results of her COVID-19 test to be permitted entry to the hospital for care.
The UNHCR representative confirmed the recognised impact of COVID-19 on civil registration and documentation across Europe, as birth registration was not always declared as an “essential service” during the pandemic in all countries. Where birth registration was restricted, this resulted in backlogs in processing due to reduced staffing and decreased opening hours, and, in some cases, birth registration campaigns were discontinued.
The final conference report will be made available next week and then added here. At the close of the discussions clear recommendations were made to member states:
- Ensure that all Roma have equal access to civil registration and nationality (citizenship) by improving and simplifying procedures for civil registration and acquisition of nationality, and addressing antigypsyism.
- Improve the collection of disaggregated data on stateless populations through national censuses, including by improving the collection of ethnic data through an equality and a human rights framework that protects the rights of persons documented and ensures communities feel safe being registered.
Recommendations were also made to Roma and pro-Roma civil society:
- Increase the visibility and understanding of the need to remove obstacles faced by Roma and Traveller women and girls regarding their residency and documentation status and nationality issues.
- Provide free legal assistance to resolve these issues.
It is very welcome that the issues of statelessness and lack of legal identity were discussed at the 8th International Roma Women’s Conference, with presentations and interventions by Roma women activists, and other statelessness experts. Activists and decision-makers must work together to find shared solutions and support Roma women’s movements for justice and equality, including to end discrimination in access to civil documentation and nationality rights.
 The term “Roma and Travellers” is used at the Council of Europe to encompass the wide diversity of the groups covered by the work of the Council of Europe in this field: on the one hand a) Roma, Sinti/Manush, Calé, Kaale, Romanichals, Boyash/Rudari; b) Balkan Egyptians (Egyptians and Ashkali); c) Eastern groups (Dom, Lom and Abdal); and, on the other hand, groups such as Travellers, Yenish, and the populations designated under the administrative term “Gens du voyage”, as well as persons who identify themselves as Gypsies. The present is an explanatory footnote, not a definition of Roma and/or Travellers.