Through its field activities and the activities of its legal implementing partner Praxis, UNHCR in Serbia has identified that the problem of statelessness, or being at risk of statelessness, disproportionately affects the Roma population in Serbia. In order to identify the numbers and to understand the reasons of statelessness in Serbia, UNHCR conducted a Survey on statelessness among the Roma in Serbia and established that 6.8% of the Roma in Serbia are at risk of statelessness due to lack of birth registration and personal documentation. It was also established that 1.5% of Roma children and adults are not registered at birth and are “legally invisible”, as they do not possess any civil document to prove their existence. According to the most updated information in the Government’s response to the EC Questionnaire it has been noted that “most of the researchers estimate that there are some 450.000 Roma residing in Serbia”. Using the researchers’ estimates the number of Roma at risk of statelessness could range up to 30.000 persons, while those that are “legally invisible” up to 6.750 persons.
The first impact of the Survey was reflected in the acknowledgment of the problem by the State. It resulted in abolishing fees in the area of subsequent birth registration. Legislative gaps in the area of subsequent birth registration that were identified by Praxis and UNHCR were discussed at all levels. The result was the draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Non-Contentious Procedure, which should provide a simplified court procedure in subsequent registration cases that are not effectively being resolved in administrative procedure. The adoption of this Law will be the first key piece of legislation enabling a systemic solution to the problems. The process of removing existing obstacles and finding solutions is only at the beginning, is not an easy one and will take time.
However, there has also been another important development that provides realistic hope that the problem of the “legally invisible” undocumented Roma could be resolved within a certain timeframe. Since States bear the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of stateless persons, on 9 April 2012 UNHCR Representation in Serbia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Public Administration and Local Self Government and the Ombudsman of the Republic of Serbia. The objective of the Memorandum is to establish close cooperation in the planning and implementing of activities aimed at assisting Roma lacking birth registration in the process of subsequent registration of birth, as well as identify the problems linked to birth registration and find systemic solutions to them. UNHCR’s role is to support the authorities in the prevention and reduction of statelessness.
The Memorandum has been signed for a period of three years and the three sides, together with civil society organizations, will be coordinating joint activities in resolving the problems of the Roma at risk of statelessness in Serbia. This should be done through joint field activities, outreach activities, information campaigns and awareness raising and capacity building among the Roma community and the competent authorities at all levels. Three months after the signing ceremony, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Public Administration and Local Self-Governance has not yet moved forward in implementing what was agreed. UNHCR hopes that however the new Government will provide a new impetus in resolving the problems of the “legally invisible” Roma in Serbia, and that it will continue to honour its commitments in the MoU and work together with UNHCR and the Ombudsman.
Adopting crucial legislative changes and full implementation of the signed Memorandum of Understanding is primarily in the interest of the State and its citizens. UNHCR’s hope is that by mid- 2015 there will be no legislative gaps in the area of birth registration in Serbia and that a vast majority of the unregistered Roma will be registered at birth and will be able to obtain documents proving and confirming their nationality. This is necessary for the social inclusion of Roma in Serbia. With the Memorandum in place, in three years time, Serbia could be one of the first States in the region that has resolved the problems of Roma at risk of statelessness.