Estimates suggest that there are several thousand people living in Serbia today, predominantly Roma, both children and adults, displaced and domiciled, who are not registered in birth registry books and who are therefore not recognized as persons before the law. We call them the “legally invisible“. They have no rights, including no access to health care, social welfare, education and employment; they cannot vote in elections, appear as parties before courts or other state bodies, register their residence or register the birth of their children. Finally, the legally invisible are at a risk of statelessness.
UNHCR’s latest survey on persons at risk of statelessness in Serbia finds that 1.5 % of the Roma population are not registered in birth registry books, 5.4% have no ID cards and 2.3% are not registered in citizens’ registries. The number of Roma residing in Serbia will be known only after the 2011 Census results, announced to be gradually released from mid-2012 until the end of 2013. According to the 2002 Census, there were 108,193 citizens living in Serbia who declared themselves members of the Roma national minority. UNHCR’s survey considers the estimations quoted by non-governmental organizations, and by the Serbian Government, that the number of Roma ranges from 250,000 to 4500,000, and that approximately 30,000 Roma are facing a risk of statelessness.
As a consequence of a life lived in poverty and social exclusion, many Roma have not registered the birth of their children in due time or they have failed to do so owing to a lack of information about deadlines, procedures, ways of obtaining necessary documents, or the impossibility to cover the costs of procedures. Besides, living in informal settlements, many of them have not managed to register a permanent residence and obtain the ID cards which are necessary when registering children’s birth. Some persons have not had the financial means to obtain necessary documentation from their place of birth or place of previous residence.
The current law of Serbia is insufficient to address the situational reality of many legally invisible persons. Roma children are often born at home, thus evidence of their birth does not even exist in the records of health institutions. If parents missed the 30-day deadline to register birth, their only option is to initiate an administrative procedure of late birth registration, which is not adequately regulated by the law. It is usually an unreasonably lengthy procedure with an unpredictable outcome. Further, the law does not prescribe how to subsequently register the birth of a person who does not know anything about his/her birth or parents. Neither does the law regulate how to register an adult whose parents have deceased or abandoned him/her in childhood. It does not state who is authorized to initiate a procedure of late birth registration for a child born out of wedlock, who has been abandoned by his/her mother. These are only some of the situations where legally invisible persons cannot be registered in birth registry books due to lack of a legal framework for these situations.
Praxis has been intensively advocating for years for Serbia to remove existing legal gaps and obstacles to universal birth registration, ensure birth registration of all children born within its territory and to adopt a simple and accelerated procedure for late birth registration for legally invisible persons. The first positive step was made in late January 2012 when the Government of Serbia submitted the Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Non-Contentious Proceedings to the Parliament for adoption. The proposed amendments are the result of joint work by the Centre for Advanced Legal Studies, Praxis and the Ombudsperson’s office.
The law would cover many of the problems with late birth registration raised above. Under the draft law, persons who have been unable to register within 3 months of their request in an administrative procedure would be allowed to initiate a court procedure requesting a late birth registration. The involvement of the parents is not requested and the fact of birth can be determined even if personal data regarding parents is unknown. Additionally, the procedure is urgent, with short deadlines and the administrative body is obliged to enforce a final court decision in the birth registry book within 3 days of its receipt. A person who initiates the procedure is exempted from fees and other costs of the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the Draft Law has not reached the parliament agenda prior to the Serbian elections in May. When it will find its place on the agenda of the new Parliament and whether it will be adopted remains to be seen.
At the same time and with the aim of preventing generations of new legally invisible persons, an improvement of the administrative procedure of birth registration of new born children is also required. In order to register a child, parents, or at least, the mother, must possess valid ID card. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that all children are registered in birth registry books immediately after their birth regardless of the status of their parents, whether they possess personal documents or not. Such a provision would bring Serbia into compliance with Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
So far there has been serious opposition within the relevant Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Public Administration and Local Self-government responsible for the issues of civil registration to improve the administrative procedure of birth registration in compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What kind of approach to this important issue the new Government will have is yet to be seen.