It is not just paperwork; it is human work. Recognising and supporting the role of grassroots organisations in the fight to end statelessness

Michelle Mila van Burik Bihari, MA. Advocacy Coordinator Roma Utrecht & Roma Advocacy Network Netherlands
/ 6 mins read

Stateless Roma, or Roma at risk of statelessness, face a number of particular challenges in daily life. These include barriers in accessing the legal rights system, legal protection and advice, and support from human rights agencies. In my work in the Roma community in the Netherlands, I have witnessed people stuck in legal procedures for twenty years, when trying to apply for Dutch citizenship. Many in this situation are left with an alien’s passport. Some people I have worked with have been living legally in the Netherlands for over forty years without obtaining Dutch citizenship. With the risk of statelessness being inherited through generations of families, more Roma children are being put at risk of statelessness and growing up without equal opportunities.

Due to bureaucracy, delays in procedures, difficulties in securing appointments to apply for citizenship and deep rooted anti-gypsyism, more Roma will be excluded from opportunities in daily life if changes are not made. As stateless people in the Netherlands do not have voting rights, political participation is out of the question for stateless Roma, meaning their voices are often not heard. During COVID-19, all these difficulties have been exacerbated and are likely to be even more prominent after the pandemic. Under the 1954 Convention, which has been ratified by the Netherlands, stateless people have rights and protections which States must uphold, but in practice not enough genuine action has been taken at national level in order to afford these rights and protections to stateless people. The delay to introducing a statelessness determination procedure in the Netherlands is one of the reasons why people remain stateless or at risk.

Crucial support for stateless people at the grassroots

I would like to take you into the world of grassroots Roma organisations in the Netherlands and their advocacy at local level. Roma advocacy has existed for decades, but the early 2000s saw the rise of grassroots organisations at local level. Utrecht’s local grassroots organisations were among the first to get the issue of Roma statelessness on the local government’s agenda. Political will from the local municipality, and an inclusive approach with involvement of the community was a crucial part of this effort. In 2019, a volunteer network of local Roma grassroots organisations, the Roma Advocacy Network Netherlands, was established to address common issues at national level. 

Stateless people in the Netherlands face exclusion and discrimination, with their voices often not being heard. It is, therefore, so important that local advocacy can provide support and services, such as accompanying people to appointments, filling in forms, providing information and referrals to solicitors. What makes local advocacy so strong and important for communities affected by statelessness, is the trustworthy position of grassroots organisations within the community, the fact that they can be reached 24/7, including in emergencies, and their ability to provide multilingual support. During COVID-19, the help of grassroots organisations has been proven to be essential, with a lot of public services unavailable. 

Local advocacy efforts often happen on a voluntary basis and with little resourcing. Their existence lies in the fact that people from local Roma communities are committed and want to improve their own situation and, first and foremost, the situation for their children and grandchildren. Because of their knowledge and personal experience, local Roma advocacy organisations are in a strong position to advocate on statelessness and nationality rights for those affected in their community.  

Systemic barriers to equal participation

In my experience, where there is political will from municipalities, together with an inclusive approach towards advocacy, positive change can be achieved in the interest of people who are stateless or at risk. The involvement and participation of community members is essential, so that they can share their story directly with decision makers. Unfortunately, representatives of local grassroots organisations generally still face opposition from institutions and their staff, sometimes even from municipalities. They are both underestimated, despite their experience and knowledge, and seen as a threat. Structural inequality and anti-gypsyism mean that grassroots organisations and their volunteers are not being taken seriously, with governments instead still prioritising the views of paid experts or consultants.  Grassroots organisations and their volunteers are not consulted or partnered with at national level, or it is sometimes done tokenistically when it is in the interest of the government. In all the time I have been a Roma advocate, I have observed that there is no middle ground, it is simply a matter of whether they respect you for who you are and what you are doing.

Other actors may not have the support or knowledge necessary to effectively address statelessness, and sometimes rely on stateless people and grassroots organisations to educate them on the issue. They may not then include stateless people or local organisations in future work and debates on the issue once they have acquired this knowledge, leading to continued exclusion of those affected in the decisions and debates that impact their lives. People affected by statelessness may also be afraid to speak out due to fear of negative impacts on their families, such as, separation from their children. Lack of resources and funding being made available or provided to migrant and Roma-led organisations representing communities affected by statelessness, creates a further barrier to their equal participation in debates and decision making.

Recognising and prioritising the work of grassroots organisations

The strength and resilience of people affected by statelessness should not be underestimated. They are strong and wish to continue to fight for their rights. Our goal at the grassroots is for the Netherlands’ international obligations to be put into practice to prevent and end statelessness. To do this, the government should introduce a statelessness determination procedure in line with UNHCR guidance as a way of demonstrating national political will to end statelessness. Structural anti-gypsyism must also be addressed to ensure the rights of Roma in the Netherlands are upheld, including those affected by statelessness.

First and foremost, it is crucial to have an inclusive approach to addressing statelessness, with those affected being able to participate in decision making. Political will not only at local level, but also at national level is needed. The city of Utrecht has set a good example with a municipality focused on inclusion. All local political parties (except for the Party for Freedom or PVV) agreed on a motion to address statelessness at local level, with other local municipalities also likely to act. Proper resourcing and recognition of grassroots organisations is essential, given they are on the frontlines providing support, and are often doing professional work on a voluntary basis. Tackling anti-gypsyism and discrimination faced by stateless people can only be done effectively when involving those directly affected, and those working at the grassroots level. Bringing local advocacy and networks at the community level together with national and regional efforts is the way forward for ending statelessness, both in the Netherlands and in Europe. Support to local, grassroots efforts from wider civil society is essential. I feel very much supported by the European Network on Statelessness in my local advocacy efforts on the issue and look forward to continued collaboration towards the protection of stateless people and the prevention of statelessness.

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