Roma statelessness in Italy – field research reveals long-awaited data

Daniela Di Rado, Italian Council for Refugees (CIR)
/ 7 mins read

The Italian Council for Refugees (CIR), with the support of Open Society Foundations, issued its study summarizing the results of the project “In the Sun – A survey on the phenomenon of statelessness among Roma communities living in Italy” in February 2013.

 The report is based on field research, aiming at understanding both qualitative and quantitative aspects of the phenomenon. Field research started mapping the number and the location of the main Roma communities and identifying the most relevant ones. It included visits to Roma settlements and camps in representative cities (Rome, Naples and Milan), the evaluation of ad hoc questionnaires, interviews and meetings with participants and representatives of Roma organizations.

 The questionnaire was filled in both with various members of selected families and with single individuals, with the objective of evaluating the motivations leading to statelessness, exploring not only juridical factors, but social and cultural ones as well. During the project activities, researchers in the field also collected “life stories”, personal examples characterizing the similar situation of many different people.

The roots of Roma statelessness in Italy

The number of stateless people of Roma origin currently living in Italy is uncertain and perhaps underestimated. Among these people, the majority seems to consist of those who come from the former Yugoslavia, taking into consideration both those who were already stateless while still living in their country of origin and those who lost their nationality after the nation's collapse. The problem arises from the dissolution of Yugoslavia itself, which made it difficult, and in some cases even impossible, for the “ex-citizens” of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to obtain the citizenship of the new States, which emerged following the bitter conflict. 

The problem equally concerns both those who had already arrived in Italy before the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, and those who arrived later. Both groups often lack a passport and are unable to request a new one, they had difficulty in reconstructing their own status civitatis and faced a series of obstacles blocking the regularization of their position. As a result, they have become or are at risk of becoming stateless. A considerable number of Roma spend their lives in a legal limbo, without access to any official recognition of their status or to the rights inherent to that status, and thus lacking any legal status whatsoever.

Neither protection status, nor citizenship

The Roma situation is acerbated by two main factors. On one hand, Italian legislation includes demanding prerequisites for the procedure for the recognition of stateless status, resulting in an administrative procedure which in practice is extremely difficult to complete. Undertaking the judicial procedure is equally complex due to the lack of regulation, causing uncertainty as to which type of judicial procedure should be followed. On the other hand, research indicates that there is an objective difficulty for Roma people in obtaining nationality from their countries of origin. At times, this is due to the prerequisites set by the regulations of the individual countries; at others, the fault lies in the lack of collaboration with diplomatic representations in Italy and consequent problems with obtaining the necessary documents (proving nationality). There are cases in which, for example, in order to register a child born in Italy in the country of origin it is necessary for the parent to return physically to that country. The often undocumented status of many of these people can make such a return unfeasible: if they leave Italy, they may not be allowed to return, and may even risk that their child be stopped at the border. 

It is evident that at least a portion of those who were interviewed by the Italian Council for Refugees for the purposes of this project wish to do whatever is needed in order to escape from this condition of limbo. As a first step, they seek to become better informed on the statelessness determination procedure. Ultimately, research repeatedly revealed that improved interaction between the Roma communities and State administration would result in both sides having more accurate information and thus realizing significant advantages.   

Probably the most noteworthy set of data which emerges from our study is the following: out of the 239 persons interviewed, 139 possess no citizenship whatsoever. 105 among them intend to apply for citizenship, while only 23 confirmed that they wish to be recognized officially as stateless, and only 6 had already started that process. Still, these figures should not be interpreted simply as evidence of lacking interest in certifying their statelessness, but instead as a testimony confirming the difficulty of initiating such an inaccessible process. Finally, research clearly demonstrated the desire of many to obtain Italian citizenship, not least because Italy is the country where many of those interviewed were born and raised, which many of them have never left.  

Unfortunately, children born in Italy are the ones who pay the greatest price for the consequences of the various situations discussed here. Born to displaced families from the former Yugoslavia, they have lived in Italy for their entire lives. Often they profess to love Italy, the country where they were born, but where they have no access to a recognized legal status and where because of their irregular position they cannot even obtain Italian citizenship. Many of these problems particularly affect second and third generations.   

Moreover, the research pointed out some further practical difficulties faced by Roma people:

-          the refusal of consulates to accept the identity of minors who possessed only an Italian birth certificate, without official registration with the authorities of her/his parents' (or grandparents') native country;

-          the frequent request that applicants appear in person to register their children in their country of origin, despite the fact that they do not possess a valid travel document, and, on the other hand, the fact that re-entry in Italy would be impossible given the absence of a residence permit;

-          the loss of citizenship following changes in the political configuration of States following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and more precisely, cancellation from official registers;

-          problems associated with being a descendent of parents or ancestors whose national status was uncertain.

These problems are aggravated by social and cultural factors, which make the steps to normalize this population’s legal position even more difficult.

The way forward?

The final report which also contains specific recommendations to the Italian authorities, strongly confirms the initial research hypothesis: a significant number of Roma families and children are excluded from the right to a nationality in Italy.

On one hand, this conclusion reinforces the public debate ongoing for years on the reform of citizenship laws in Italy, and may facilitate a possible reform leaning towards the right of jus soli. On the other hand, there are some measures which can be taken immediately, to reduce the extent of irregularity, the absence of rights and marginalization.

Therefore CIR recommends that the Italian Government and the Parliament enact reforms considering the legislation on citizenship, including a specific section on statelessness and fully implementing the international obligations deriving from the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. This law must establish an effective administrative statelessness determination procedure, which would provide significant procedural guarantees. The latter would include the granting of a residence permit while the statelessness determination procedure is pending, the maximum duration of the process, the competent authorities, legal remedies and access to legal assistance – as it happens in the field of asylum. If statelessness is recognized in a judicial procedure, procedural guarantees should also apply, including clear guidance regarding the procedural modality to follow, the competent court, the powers of the parties, the procedural timeframe and the appeal. Moreover, law reform should ensure the acknowledgment of and the ability to exercise rights following the recognition of statelessness: these must include the issuance of a residence permit, a travel document and an effective exercise of rights.

For stateless minors born in Italy who lived for a certain period of time on the territory, and for whom it is impossible to reconstruct a status civitatis, it would be desirable to facilitate access to Italian citizenship, with the intent of preventing and reducing statelessness. Raising awareness among Roma and Sinti communities on issues related to citizenship and statelessness is also crucial.

Finally, CIR urges Italy to ratify the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness, the 1997 European Convention on Nationality and the 2006 Council of Europe Convention on the avoidance of statelessness in relation to State succession. The ratification of these Conventions and the proper “transposition” of the obligations included therein would provide Italy with more legal instruments to prevent statelessness, thus avoiding the harmful consequences of exclusion and discrimination against Roma people.

 The Italian Council for Refugees (CIR) is an associate member of the European Network on Statelessness

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