Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo are disproportionately affected by the risk of statelessness and its associated impact on accessing rights. From the frontline of work supporting these communities, ENS member, Roma Versitas Kosovo, presents an overview of the current context for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo. The piece goes on to outline their work to map and advocate for communities affected by statelessness in Kosovo under our Roma Belong project and the revolutionary impact this new data promises for the fight to end statelessness.
The Kosovo context
The 2011 Census reported the total population of Kosovo as 1,739,825 people, which included 8,824 Roma, 15,436 Ashkali and 11,524 Egyptians. At that time, Roma constituted 0.51 % of the total population, Ashkali 0.89 % and Egyptians 0.66 %.. However, according to the January 2020 OSCE Overview of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, based on information received from the Municipal Office for Communities and Returnees (MOCRs), the OSCE estimates the numbers of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities today to actually be at least double the numbers estimated in the last census. Reports that Kosovo has a much higher number of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian inhabitants than represented in the Census is also supported by local civil society organisations working with these communities.
Even though Kosovo is not officially a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons 1954, Article 22 of the Kosovo Constitution guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms within the scope of international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols, The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and many others. Despite not being State Party to the 1954 Convention, through these commitments the Constitution is in fact aligned with international instruments which protect the right to a nationality and the fundamental rights of all individuals, including those who are stateless or at risk of statelessness.
Availability of information and data about the stateless population, especially in Balkan countries such as Kosovo, has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest obstacles that we face, especially when it comes to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo. During the 1999 conflict, most Roma were displaced either within the region or to other parts of Europe. In many cases their documents were lost, in some cases they became stateless or at risk of statelessness due to State succession, discrimination, and gaps and conflicts in different countries’ nationality laws. Some community members have continued their lives with now invalid Yugoslavian citizenship documents, and even today some are struggling to obtain personal documents in either Kosovo or Serbia, despite parallel institutions existing in both countries which theoretically offer confirmation of citizenship for people with expired Yugoslavian documents. In Kosovo, although there is no exact data for the number of people affected by statelessness, it is not hard to find Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families and individuals at risk of statelessness; struggling to obtain birth certificates, identity cards, or passports, which in turn leads to difficulties accessing basic rights such as healthcare, social assistance, education, employment and voting rights, to name but a few.
In the aftermath of the conflict in Kosovo, Western European States began both forced and voluntary returns of Romani people to Kosovo, which led to an increased number of undocumented individuals returning to the country, some of whom were stateless or at risk of statelessness. Despite the above-mentioned favourable laws, which exist to protect people’s rights to a legal identity and nationality, the majority of these individuals had to rely on help from NGOs, including ENS Members, such as Civil Rights Protection Kosovo (CRPK), and international institutions, such as the UNHCR, to help them access their rights.
Roma Versitas Kosovo
In 2017, Roma Versitas Kosovo (RVK) was founded as a community-based NGO that focuses on the rights and needs of university students belonging to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo.
Currently, Roma Versitas Kosovo aims to empower Romani communities to take part in public and political life in Kosovo. Our movement was founded in 2021 in response to social inequalities that Roma in Kosovo face every day. Roma Versitas Kosovo is the only organisation in Kosovo whose top priority is to work with Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian students and invest in the fulfillment of their basic rights. Our staff team has gained over five years of direct experience whilst working towards supporting 1,000 Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian students and youth in three resource centres (in Prishtina, Prizren, and Peja) across Kosovo.
RVK remains one of the most important NGOs delivering vital services to students in the country. University education is a fundamental pillar of today’s society and no-one should be deprived of this opportunity. For Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian people, access to university is particularly important because the tools that higher education provides, alongside improved access to the labour market, can have a crucial impact on inclusion and integration within Kosovan society.
Since its inception, RVK has expanded the scope of its work to also cover human rights work, participation in policymaking, education and research, and overall inclusion of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities. This work is made possible through support and funding the Roma Education Fund, the US Embassy of Prishtina, Community Development Fund (CDF), Council of Europe, Rockefeller Brother Fund, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Office for Communities of the Prime Minister of Kosovo, United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), and Culture for Change, as well as ENS.
Since 2017, RVK has implemented various educational programmes and projects aimed at strengthening the inclusion of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities, supporting them with basic human rights, such as the right to education. Other programmes had a wider spectrum such as the Roma Versitas Programme (national and local support for Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities), Rolling Film Festival (the only Roma film festival in the Western Balkans), and Advocacy and Academic Support for Roma Youth, among others.
In 2018 RVK successfully trained its staff to deliver careers advice and founded a careers centre for its beneficiaries. Since then, RVK has supported the training and employment of more than 60 young Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, in cooperation with Prishtina Consulting Group (PCG) and financed by Swiss Helvetas.
Statelessness in Kosovo: The Roma Belong Project
In 2019, RVK joined ENS and has been working with their support on various initiatives along with other partners to map Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities at risk of statelessness in Kosovo and carry out advocacy with the government and other actors to address and resolve these issues.
Even though the legal framework for the prevention and reduction of statelessness in Kosovo is relatively strong, there remain obstacles in the implementation of the law and reaching out to Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. The absence of statistics about who is affected by statelessness in Kosovo has also led to poor implementation of the law and biased decision-making, resulting in this at-risk population (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities) living with high levels of poverty and social exclusion. Due to the lack of data on affected individuals, accurate mapping has required a strong network of organisations as well as extensive knowledge of the three communities (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians communities) and the settlements they live in. It is thanks to the longstanding working relationships and trust established between RVK and these three communities that this work has been a success.
The work ahead
Even though countries in the Western Balkans have made a political commitment to address the issues of statelessness in their respective countries, much remains to be done to provide equal access to civil registration and citizenship for minority communities. Kosovo is signatory to the Poznan Declaration, which was adopted in 2019 and aims to establish clear goals that the Kosovo Government (and others in the region) needs to achieve as part of their journey to EU accession. Moreover, this declaration has strategically defined objectives in the areas of employment, education, housing, healthcare, civil registration, and combating discrimination. In the context of Kosovo, it is well-known that there are laws (similar to those at the European Level) which are intended to protect, defend and include the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities as an integral part of Kosovo’s society. However, it also known that the implementation of these laws is very weak and, in some cases, non-existent. Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are constitutionally recognised communities and yet are among the most vulnerable communities in Kosovo. A large number of international reports on progress in Kosovo highlight this vulnerability, including key findings of the 2019 European Commission Report on Kosovo, the Human Rights Watch World Report 2019/2020, and the 2020 OSCE Overview of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities in Kosovo.
If urgent steps are not taken, Kosovo’s important regional and international commitments will remain only on paper and the situation of these three communities will not change.
At present, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities are disproportionately affected by lack of access to civil registration (at local municipal level) compared to the access granted to the majority communities living in Kosovo. Discrimination, prejudice, and lack of knowledge all have a huge impact on the registration process. Many Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians who present at the doorstep of the registration office are denied entry into the building due to bureaucratic procedures, complex paperwork requirements, literacy barriers, and discrimination. Thus, they are obliged to turn to local NGOs and other institutions for help and legal assistance.
As a result, affected individuals face numerous challenges, including:
- Living as an easy target of direct and indirect discrimination;
- An inability to enjoy social services provided by the State;
- Inability to prove entitlement to citizenship;
- Lack of employment;
- Lack of access to healthcare services;
- Lack of birth registration of children;
These issues are made worse by a lack of institutional cooperation between countries in the region, as well as a lack of available guidance and legal aid for affected individuals. Nonetheless, they are all solvable, and could be overcome through improved regional cooperation and a proactive approach by governments, civil society and international partners, such as UNHCR and OSCE.
Since the end of the conflict, in addition to the challenges experienced by everyone in Kosovo, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities face significant economic instability and poverty. Unequal access to civil registration and citizenship worsens these problems. For example, RVK has been told by the Office of the Ombudsperson in Gracanica that they have approximately 50 cases pending, filed by Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians relating to violations of their basic right to be registered.
At RVK, our hope and belief is that accurate mapping of the population at risk of statelessness in Kosovo is a crucial step in the fight to end statelessness in Kosovo. Ultimately, we stay connected to the principle set out in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “Everyone has the right to a nationality”.