Legally Invisible in Serbia

/ 8 mins read

Just outside the front door of their shack in an informal Roma settlement in central Belgrade, Serbia, 15-year-old Deni and his six brothers and sisters gather around their mother and grandmother for a group photograph.  The children goof around with each other, as children naturally do.  A few moments pass, then Deni turns and tells all of them to straighten up for a minute and look at the camera.  The shutter clicks.  Almost immediately everyone returns to their previous activities.  Two of his brothers run back through the muddy street to play with another group of boys near a heap of rubbish.  His five-year-old sister stays close to home and his other siblings linger around his mother and grandmother. 

Their home is out of sight, practically invisible to most. The only eyes that ever see this place are those on the occasional graffiti-decorated trains that speed by up the hill only a few feet away from Deni’s squalid home.

I met Deni (and one of his younger brothers) several days before, in the office of Praxis.  While the meeting was pure coincidence, there were some shared reasons for all of us being in the Praxis office that day.  Deni and his brother were meeting with a lawyer who was trying to assess their situation and help them through a Serbian legal and administrative process that could result in Deni and his siblings having proper birth registrations.  On the other hand, I was in the Praxis office, collaborating with the organization to create a photo essay that explores and highlights the situation for Roma throughout the country who still faced challenges with documentation and citizenship.   

Since I started exploring of the issue of global statelessness in late 2005, I have been constantly reminded of the precarious citizenship status of many Roma throughout Europe, not to mention the discrimination, exclusion and stigmas and stereotypes that are constantly associated with the Roma community, regardless of where they may live in Europe.  But as each year passed by, my attention and limited resources were always pulling me somewhere else to work on this issue. That would change in 2014 with trips to Serbia as well as Italy.  Both trips would focus on disenfranchised Roma in each country; primarily Roma communities originally from ex-Yugoslavia who were displaced decades ago as a result of the subsequent wars and creation of new States.

Roma in Serbia are some of the most vulnerable people in the country.  Most Roma whom I spent time with were displaced from Kosovo.  Though many Roma from this community were born in Serbia or have lived in Serbia for decades, many continue to be unsuccessful in proving their identity, registering their birth or acquiring citizenship and are ‘legally invisible’.

Absence of identity documents & birth registration, destruction of identity documents in the wars, poverty, the link between residency and access to documentation, lack of awareness & education, irresponsibility and negligence, discrimination, as well as a historically complicated, bureaucratic and often times dysfunctional administrative system of the State have all in their each unique way contributed to creating the portrait of statelessness in the Roma community in Serbia.  But as most know, these characteristics are not isolated just to Serbia and a community like the Roma in Serbia.  These characteristics are not border-specific.  They are easily found in most other places around the world today with stateless populations.

While recent changes in Serbian court procedures for the determination of date & place of birth have helped Roma in Serbia receive proper birth registration, many have not benefited from the recent changes and continue to be stateless (or depending on how the terminology leans:  ‘at risk’ of statelessness) because they still face challenges in acquiring documentation and citizenship, like Deni and his siblings.

I’ve worked almost exclusively on my project Nowhere People for 9 years now.  Before I even took my first photograph for this project, I remember people asking me, “How will you capture something like ‘statelessness’ in a photograph?” People continue to ask me this question.  While we all play our own individual roles in exposing this issue and more importantly, to hopefully improving the lives of stateless people, photography has the ability to contribute a nuanced perspective and powerful visual that words just can’t.  Images have the capacity to stay with us. To travel with us in our thoughts.  To revisit us at times when we are looking for clarification.  To draw us that much closer into a story, a place, a situation, a persons life. And I’ve always felt that everyone working on the issue of statelessness needs to be drawn in closer.

Regardless of how much time I spend in a place, I have always found that in each place I travel or with each stateless community I spend time with, there will inevitably be that one photograph, that one moment or situation, which for me encompasses the issue of statelessness.  You have no idea when it will come, in what form or who might present it to you, but instinctually you know it when appears.  And when it does appear, it is a gift that has always left a huge impression in my mind and my understanding of this very complex issue and the lives of the people who I meet. 

The first time I met Deni, I was impressed by the sense of duty and responsibility he carried with him.  He was the caretaker for the futures of his brothers and sisters.  A role much too large for a 15-year-old but it was a role Deni accepted and took seriously.  Born in Kosovo in1999 to a Roma family that had fled from Kosovo to Serbia that same year, Deni was the oldest.  All of the children in his family were born in Serbia but are legally invisible. His father passed away in 2012.

After meeting Deni and his brother at the Praxis office, I told him that I’d like to visit his family, see where they lived and hear more about his story.  They agreed.  Two days later, I would click the shutter on my camera and take the portrait of Deni’s family. 

Yet the photograph that defined my time with Deni as well as my understanding of the issue of statelessness in Serbia, was not the family portrait.  It was a photo of Deni holding an old notebook of paper. 

Like many stateless people in the world, without documents they never legally exist and much of this is sparked by having never received a birth certificate, never having proof that people recognize and never having the evidence to answer some of the most fundamental questions like: When were you born?  Where were you born?  Who are your mother and father?  What is your name? 

What impact should documentation have in defining and confirming the legitimacy of ones identity today?  Legally, it is paramount. And even for a 15-year-old, like Deni, the repercussion of not having that piece of paper, that birth certificate, can be felt and experienced in dozens of occasions every day. 

About an hour before I took the family photograph, while talking with Deni, I asked him again if he and his brothers and sisters had proper birth certificates. He said no.  We discussed the challenges he and his family face in terms of the freedom of movement.  Of accessing schools and healthcare.  Of not having choices.  Of having to work to earn money for his family.  Of their poor living conditions.

I had been told of the notebook before arriving at Deni’s house earlier that day, but during our conversation and while taking time to photograph, I had forgotten about it.  But when the conversation came back to birth registration and documentation and the absence of documentation, I remembered it.  I asked Deni if he would mind show me the notebook.

“No problem,” he answered.

He walked into the house and a minute later came out with the notebook.  Many of the pages were loose.  The cover was worn and much of the notebook was filled with scribbles and nothing of importance.  Deni flipped to the last page. 

“There,” he said and he pointed at his name written at the top of the page with the numbers:  15031999

Legally invisible.  Future completely unknown.  Stuck in what people refer to as a ‘legal limbo’.  Deni and his six brothers and sisters may not have a shred of legal documentation proving their existence in this world, but there on the last page of that notebook, written in the handwriting of his deceased father is Deni’s name and birthday as well as the names and birthdays of his brothers and sisters.  The only ‘proof’ they have, yet unfortunately, it is not enough. 

***Greg Constantine is a documentary photographer who has spent the past 9 years working on the long-term project Nowhere People, which documents the impact statelessness has on individuals and communities around the world.  He is the author of two books:  Kenya’s Nubians: Then & Now and Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya.  The 3rd book, Nowhere People will be published in summer 2015.

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