Following a successful launch of a joint #RomaBelong report which marked the start of a new project on Roma statelessness in the Western Balkans and Ukraine, ENS talked to Adam Weiss, Managing Director of the European Roma Rights Centre and a member of the ENS Advisory Committee.
The ERRC has been at the forefront of the fight against discrimination and marginalisation of Roma in Europe. Indeed, statelessness is often not an accident, but a logical outcome of discrimination. Tell us a bit more about the new strand of work ERRC has undertaken with ISI and ENS under the #RomaBelong project to tackle the issue of Roma statelessness?
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is a Roma-led international public interest law organisation working primarily as the litigation arm of the Romani movement in Europe, but also through research and policy development, advocacy and human rights education. Statelessness is an issue that has been difficult to litigate directly, because little was known about the causes, scope and obstacles standing in the way of addressing Romani statelessness. Our work with ISI, ENS and in collaboration with partner organisations in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Ukraine has been about lifting a lid on the issue and facilitating and bolstering international, regional and national responses to Roma statelessness. We published a synthesis report based on research findings from all of the research countries, exposing the toxic mix of stereotyping and prejudice, and legal and administrative formalism that is perpetuating Romani statelessness. We will be launching two more focused reports on Albania and Ukraine early in 2018. The point is to put state authorities on notice: Romani statelessness is down to a systemic failure to protect the rights of Romani people.
The #RomaBelong report you mentioned revealed that thousands of Roma live at risk of statelessness. Why is it such a problem that Roma don’t have a nationality?
In theory, human rights are for everyone, but in practice Romani women and men without a nationality lack the practical and legal tools to stand up and say “I have rights”. Fight school segregation? They can’t even attend school. Challenge inequalities in reproductive healthcare? A pregnant Romani woman might not even be able to see a doctor if she is stateless. Other essential activities that you and I take for granted are outside their reach as well: they cannot be lawfully employed, own or rent a house, or even get married. What is worse, they often pass on their predicament to their children who grow up feeling like they don’t belong. There is another dimension to this issue though – antigypsyism. A specific form of racism which is expressed, among others, through violence, hate speech, exploitation, stigmatisation and in some cases denial of nationality. It is the evil which Romani people are combating daily, in and out of court, and Romani statelessness touches upon so many of the tropes and stereotypes of antigypsyism.
Paradoxically, many Roma, whose nationality on the face of the law is not in question - they were born in the country and they lived in the same country all their lives - still struggle for years in many cases to prove their links to their home country. What do you think needs to change so that statelessness can once and for all be swept into the dustbin of history?
Every student of human rights know that people are “rights holders” and States are “duty bearers”. But when it comes to Romani statelessness, as our report shows, too many public officials have it back to front. They think Roma are responsible for their situation and that they, the public officials, are right to deny birth registration, for example, when faced with Roma who have no documents. What needs to change is that public officials need to accept and act on their responsibility to register the births of all Romani children, formally recognise Romani people who are stateless as stateless, and recognise the nationality of those Roma at risk of statelessness through the mechanisms that exist in law.
The atmosphere at the launch event in Skopje in October was one of a drive to find solutions, to forge new alliances and to empower Roma who find themselves without a nationality. What role do you see the new #RomaBelong alliance of organisations can play in the future and what are the more long-term plans in making sure the issue is addressed and resolved?
We need to be the champions of stateless Romani people and to demand that this remains an issue of utmost priority until all Roma can enjoy their rights as citizens. The #RomaBelong alliance will work together with Roma rights organisations and activists to mobilise around the Roma Belong report recommendations. The next phase of the work together with ENS and ISI will look to map the advocacy opportunities and to set out a programme of work to influence key national and regional institutions and processes such as the European Union, Council of Europe, Roma 2020, UN bodies and other relevant stakeholders, towards achieving change. It will also involve identifying and supporting court cases with the potential to compel states to change laws and policies which allow the officials to put up barriers which hinder Roma access to basic rights as citizens. This is an issue ERRC is committed to tackling throughout all of our future work and we look forward to working with our partners in 2018 and beyond.