ENS and our partners in the Western Balkans have been working together on our #RomaBelong project, funded by the Open Society Foundations, to increase awareness of and find solutions to statelessness in Roma communities. As we mark International Romani Day on 8 April, we take a look at the progress that has been made to break the mutually reinforcing cycle of anti-gypsyism and statelessness in Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia under the project, and take stock of the obstacles that still lie ahead.
Across all four countries there has been encouraging progress on paper since 2019, under the frameworks of the Poznan Declaration on Roma Integration and the EU enlargement processes. Under these frameworks, goals for equality and integration of Roma populations are measured, including through efforts to resolve cases of statelessness. For in situ stateless populations who have long-established ties in a country, as is the situation for Roma in the Western Balkans, the necessary solutions are strategies for confirmation of nationality through straightforward and accessible procedures, supported by targeted campaigns to reach and inform those in need, nationality verification efforts, as well as implementing measures to close gaps in access to birth registration to ensure that statelessness is not passed down over generations. ENS partner organisations are supporting initiatives where some of these steps are being taken, and continuing to advocate for fuller solutions where progress is too slow.
Significant gaps and practical hurdles remain in all four countries, however. Efforts to adequately identify and quantify the scale of Roma statelessness have been insufficient, and outreach to inform marginalised Roma communities of their rights is often poor. A major part of the activities of ENS’ partner organisations under the project is therefore focused on advocacy for improvements at every level – local, national and international – for an evidence-based approach to closing protection gaps, meeting obligations under international law in full, and tackling the prejudice that perpetuates systematic exclusion of Roma communities.
Working with Roma-led organisations across the region allows the project to be rooted in the confidence of communities and to overcome barriers impacting effective implementation, such as language, bureaucratic and financial blocks. Some of the project’s key activities are therefore dedicated to directly supporting communities with information, legal advice and administrative costs.
Roma, Ashkali & Egyptian communities are disproportionately impacted by statelessness in Kosovo because many were categorised as Yugoslav citizens, lost their citizenship when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and have been unable to acquire Kosovar citizenship due to administrative barriers and discrimination.
Nonetheless there has been significant progress since then. In 2022, the government adopted a strategy and action plan including targeted measures for these communities. However, it is practically difficult for Roma people to obtain birth certificates and access civil registration, in part due to language barriers. ENS’ partner, Roma Veritas Kosovo (RVK) is undertaking outreach that is relevant and accessible to these communities, in a context where there is a lack of civil society organisations capable of carrying out this work in communities.
RVK is also participating in a consultation process to make amendments to the Kosovar law on civil registration and working with local authorities in five key municipalities with high Roma populations, to identify and provide cultural mediation with communities at risk, and assist the authorities to understand the scale of the problem.
The Montenegro government made a number of positive commitments in 2019 to address statelessness but has not yet taken sufficient steps to implement these pledges.
At the last census in 2011, 4,312 people were recorded as having ‘no nationality’ and more recent polling conducted by UNHCR, alongside the government, has confirmed that the issue remains widespread, especially among Roma and Egyptian communities. The government made a public call for people to come forward to be registered after the census, but subsequently closed the programme in 2015, without having reached all impacted people. Montenegro also established a statelessness determination procedure (SDP) in 2018, which could be a pathway to protection for migratory stateless populations, but it remains difficult to access and with several shortcomings.
Stateless Roma communities therefore remain at risk of deportation and unable to access their economic & social rights. They are now required to return to Kosovo (from where many were displaced in the 1999 war) and be registered before they can access the Montenegro system, but Kosovan law does not permit this, so they are stuck in a catch-22 and cannot be added to the register of citizens in Montenegro.
Alongside direct support to document and support the needs of Roma communities who are (at risk of being) stateless, ENS’s partner Phiren Amenca - Walk With Us, is pursuing all possible avenues for progress, while providing support directly to members of impacted communities. A social strategy for integration of Roma and Egyptian communities for 2021-25 is underway, which includes the aim to resolve the issue of civil status and personal documentation. Also, a Strategy on Migration and reintegration of returnees in Montenegro for 2021-25 includes aims to address citizenship issues, and the action plan includes commitment to tackling anti-gypsyism. Phiren Amenca is contributing to these processes and has also worked with ENS to contribute to the 43rd session of the UN Periodic Review, and the 73rd session of the Committee Against Torture to raise this issue at the highest levels.
Serbia has no mechanism by which to identify statelessness. Its action plans since 2019 for the Poznan Declaration process, however, do include commitments on reducing statelessness, but gaps remain in law and practice. The new Strategy on Roma Equality, Inclusion and Participation omits to include measures on civil registration and statelessness and the government has signalled that no legislative changes are planned.
Immediate birth registration is not accessible to the children of undocumented parents, as they must be able to provide birth certificates and ID documents. ENS’ partner in Serbia for the Roma Belong project, Praxis, has raised this issue alongside the office of the Ombudsperson, UNHCR and the UN Human Rights Committee.
Currently, health institutions are obliged to inform local police of mothers with insecure migration status who cannot produce these documents, ostensibly to enable registration of the child, but without clear protections from immigration enforcement by the authorities. This constitutes a serious barrier to undocumented mothers registering their children. Praxis has collected a body of evidence comprised of case studies of children born between 2021-2022 that demonstrates that protections intended to enable mothers to register children without risk are not being implemented in practice.
Access to late birth registration under the government’s non-contentious procedure is also beset by practical issues, including applicants being wrongfully charged a prohibitive fee to access services, long delays, and errors in decision making. In 2020 the Supreme Court of Cassation gave a ruling that excludes people registered in the birth registry in Kosovo from accessing the procedure, even though Serbia does not recognise Kosovar documentation, leaving these people in yet another Balkan citizenship catch-22 situation.
Praxis continues to collect evidence of the people who fall through these gaps and use them to contribute to evidence submitted to the 43rd session of the UN Periodic Review and the 137th session of the UN Human Rights Committee.
North Macedonia introduced some routes to regularisation in 2020, but these are limited in scope and do not resolve nationality status nor prevent new cases from arising. Significant barriers also remain to universal birth registration – which has a disproportionate impact on Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.
Efforts to collect data on the number of people impacted by statelessness in the 2021 census did not achieve a conclusive estimate. Nonetheless, the government implemented a ‘Law on Persons without Regulated Civil Status’, whereby people at risk of statelessness who do not have any personal documentation can register for a ‘special registration’ which provides access to socio-economic rights. However, this only applies to the 750 people who were identified to be without personal documentation during a Government-led public call conducted in 2018, and to children born after the closure of the public call. In fact, the true number of people at risk of statelessness is likely to be higher. In any case, the programme came to an end in June 2022 without having reached all the population in need, and even those who were able to register through the programme still face practical barriers to opening bank accounts and accessing healthcare and social rights.
ENS’ partner, the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), along with the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) are pursuing a class action lawsuit for discrimination on behalf of these people, and the first hearing will take place this year.
MYLA is meanwhile focused on advocacy activities and has participated since June 2022 in a working group established by the Ministry of Justice to assess the impacts of the registration programme and create a plan to address its shortcomings. MYLA is also contributing to the process of redrafting the new law for birth registration, expected to be adopted in 2023. In this work, they are advocating for the need to ensure that protections for children at risk of being born stateless focus on the lack of nationality of the child, not the status of parents, and to make it accessible also to over-18s, so that adults whose birth was not registered can obtain a solution.
The road ahead
There is still some way to go to ensure that all members of Roma, Egyptian and Ashkali communities across the Western Balkans are able to enjoy the full protection of their rights to nationality and access to economic and social rights. However, it is notable that there is some considerable momentum, hampered by patchy implementation, which is driven in part by EU enlargement procedures, and in large part by the work of ENS members across the four countries, to move towards solutions, and close gaps.
On the occasion of International Romani Day, we celebrate the contribution of Roma people to our societies and cultures across Europe, as well as the contribution of our members engaged on work to support Roma people to the ENS network. For too long, prejudice has been allowed to provide a smokescreen for the failure to take concerted action to include Roma people on an equal basis to other European citizens, but through the #RomaBelong project, we are proud to be part of the change that must come to finally and fully leave such shameful discrimination in Europe’s past.