Resolving statelessness in Roma communities requires improved inclusion, participation and scrutiny of discrimination

Nina Murray, Head of Policy & Research at the European Network on Statelessness
/ 5 mins read

This week two European conferences take place asking crucial questions on inclusion and statelessness. On Monday and Tuesday, Roma civil society, European institutions, and State representatives gathered online and in Brussels for the 14th European Platform for Roma Inclusion. On Thursday and Friday, many of these same States will be represented at a statelessness conference and technical meeting organised by the Council of Europe and UNHCR in Strasbourg.

Roma Belong

Unfortunately, a glance at the participant lists and agendas for these two events suggests limited overlap and synergy between them. ENS’ work with our Roma members and partners has shown that we need to be focusing more, not less, on the nexus between statelessness and Roma inclusion. That’s why we (and our members) are asking States, European institutions, and civil society this week to confront the difficult questions about why so many Romani people in Europe still struggle to assert their citizenship, and how to resolve this.

Inclusion & statelessness

Around the world minorities disproportionately make up those who lack citizenship of any country. This is not an accident. There is a cruel logic to it – people perceived or portrayed as ‘different’, ‘foreign’, or ‘other’, are in turn perceived ‘not to belong’ in a particular national context. To see statelessness as merely a technical or administrative problem of flawed law-making that can be fixed through legal and policy reform is to deny the complex role that discrimination – and in the case of Romani communities, antigypsyism - plays in perpetuating denial of citizenship. We cannot end statelessness without addressing questions of discrimination,  and these difficult questions need to be part of any discussion about statelessness or Roma rights.

In these conversations, pro-active inclusion is an effective countermeasure to discrimination in ensuring marginalised affected communities are heard. Our recent research and work alongside our Roma members has evidenced once again the necessity for an intersectional approach in identifying and solving discriminatory law and practice with regard to citizenship. In July 2021, ENS launched a Romani women’s activism initiative, collaborating with a group of Roma women activists. The initiative is supported with funds from the Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung and aims to highlight the specific challenges faced by Roma women across Europe in relation to statelessness, and making recommendations from within communities for solutions. We plan to publish our findings later in 2021, but for now note this valuable work is already highlighting a range of areas where gendered discrimination impacts on statelessness and inclusion. The value of this approach cannot be overstated. We encourage future platforms to include more intersectional initiatives led by community members: such inclusion will raise awareness of discriminatory practices overlooked in the past and enhance the quality of analysis to come.

A focus on citizenship

It is therefore welcome that the new EU Framework for Equality, Participation, and Inclusion makes a commitment to an intersectional approach and highlights diversity among Romani people in Europe, including in relation to their status as EU citizens, nationals, non-nationals, or stateless persons. The framework recognises and recommends that individual States in their national strategies should ‘end statelessness among Roma by ensuring universal birth registration and access to identity documents, formal statelessness determination procedures, and universal access to services.’ However, conspicuous by its absence is any reference to citizenship, which is ultimately the only way to end statelessness. States can put in place measures to prevent statelessness by ensuring universal birth registration and access to identity documents, but the only way to end statelessness and achieve equality is to guarantee the right to a nationality and facilitate confirmation and proof of citizenship to ensure no one is left behind.

Citizenship is a fundamental cornerstone of inclusion, equality, and participation. Without citizenship – or proof of it – stateless people face barriers to inclusion in all other key areas. How can we hope to achieve Roma inclusion in Europe if the basics are not yet universally in place? Roma children born in Europe are still starting life without a birth certificate. Roma women still face barriers to accessing maternity care and birth registration for their children due to documentation problems. Thousands of Romani people still live in Europe without any legal identity and proof that they are citizens of the countries they call home. How can we achieve equality in housing, healthcare, education, and employment, if this key cornerstone is missing?

With funding from the Open Society Foundations Roma Initiatives Office and the support of the Regional Cooperation Council, we have been working with our Roma members to reinforce this message in Western Balkan States as part of the Berlin Process and follow-up from the 2019 Poznan Declaration on Roma integration in the EU Enlargement Process. The Declaration provided a key opportunity to hold governments in the region to account on action to address persistent civil registration issues. This was an important step in the right direction and there is no doubt that progress has been made towards this goal.

However, key gaps remain. Universal, immediate birth registration is not yet a reality, with many Romani children still unable to acquire a birth certificate and confirmation of nationality soon after birth. Procedures for late registration are still complex, legal aid is very limited, and individuals still fall through administrative gaps. Add to this the deep-rooted structural and societal antigypsyism that has at last been formally defined and acknowledged in the new EU framework (and was the focus of much discussion at the Roma Platform this week), and it is clear much more needs to be done. There is also a real risk that in the rush to find ‘quick fix’ solutions to civil registration problems, the fundamental question of citizenship gets left behind. This leads to partial ‘solutions’, which exacerbate antigypsyism by entrenching unequal access to citizenship and the rights, protection, inclusion and sense of belonging it provides. An example of this would be public registration campaigns that identify individuals without legal identity, but then rather than establish procedures to confirm and issue proof of citizenship, instead issue a ‘special’ (or worse, ‘foreigner’) temporary status that reinforces exclusion rather than confirming inclusion.  

Commitments to ending Roma statelessness by 2024

It is to be celebrated that all six Western Balkan governments have committed to including ‘Roadmaps towards ending statelessness by 2024’ in their new Action Plans on Roma Inclusion. Vitally, this takes the debate beyond civil registration to focus on the ultimate end-goal enshrined in international human rights law: realising everyone’s right (free from discrimination) to a nationality. We are yet to see the final agreed content of these action plans and roadmaps, but our Roma members and their allies have been working hard to be part of the conversations at national level to negotiate them, and we look forward to supporting work to implement them and monitor progress. Other Council of Europe and EU Member States should use the opportunity of a regional focus this week on both Roma inclusion and statelessness to ask themselves some difficult questions about what more they can do to ensure ending Roma statelessness and equality in nationality matters are firmly on the agenda and included in their national strategies for Roma equality, inclusion, and participation.

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