Nevenka Kapičić is a Project Coordinator at the Roma youth organisation Walk with us - Phiren Amenca. They are based in Podgorica and work with Roma communities on education, employment, legal status, social inclusion and housing. We spoke to Nevenka about the effects of the pandemic, statelessness and Montenegro's accession to the European Union.
- Phiren Amenca is at the forefront of the fight against antigypsyism, discrimination and marginalisation of Roma. Indeed, statelessness among Roma is often not an accident, but a logical outcome of discrimination. Tell us about the main issue when it comes to Roma statelessness in Montenegro?
Roma statelessness in the Western Balkan countries is a complex, decades-long problem that requires an in-depth understanding of the region’s history, current political framework and ultimately realising the consequences of living without any status in one country. The system refers to stateless people as ‘cases’, but behind every case is a whole story and behind a story is a person or an entire family. The primary barrier in the path forward is the fact that solving one case requires an entire team of experts and a lot of funds, and that is not of particular interest to politicians, since people without resolved legal status in Montenegro don’t have electoral influence. The grain of political will that is emerging in support of stateless people actually comes from the broader obligations that the state of Montenegro has towards the European Union, which has created pressure to address this matter sooner rather than later.
Roma statelessness in the Balkan region needs to be considered in the context of the history of the Yugoslavian conflict, whose silent victims were Roma and Egyptians. One consequence of the conflict has been poor cooperation between newly formed states, which is the second barrier in addressing Roma statelessness. The lack of cooperation between states as well as between intergovernmental institutions slows down opportunities for progress. Key here is that improved cooperation would almost automatically fix most of the current and future cases of statelessness and bring positive outcomes relatively quickly.
The third barrier for resolving Roma statelessness is the ineffective implementation of the existing system within state institutions. While a solid foundation for regulating this problem has been built, smooth implementation is constantly hampered by shortcomings including issues in cooperation between state institutions, human error (whether employees or the Roma and Egyptian communities), complex expensive procedures and extensive bureaucracy. These implementation shortcomings are in urgent need of reform.
- Your work revealed that hundreds of Roma in Montenegro live at risk of statelessness. What are the daily struggles faced by Roma who don’t have or can’t prove their nationality and what do you think needs to change to address the issue?
The piece of paper that proves your status in one country, grants you possibilities - to educate yourself, to work, to see a doctor and have a roof over your head. The lack of that paper grants you limitations. Limitations to find a job with a solid pay and insurance, to access health care, to raise and educate children in a healthy environment. Through direct contact with the community we know that their struggles are typically associated with extreme poverty, low education, reliance on the informal economy as a source of income, informal housing near city landfills and no free health care. For these things to substantially change, three things need to happen.
Firstly, in the part of the community that suffers from any form of statelessness, legal status should become the number one priority, with the state system thereby prioritising and facilitating access to employment and education.
Secondly, all state institutions must have connected systems and a shared digital database for improved and quicker communication. This will also address current challenges in which applicants depend on the will and dedication of the individual counter worker.
Thirdly, we must educate Roma and Egyptian community to be attentive to deadlines and obligations in regulating the legal status, in order to not miss deadlines and jeopardize their basis for acquiring status or citizenship.
- The last year and a half have been particularly challenging for marginalised groups across Europe. You’ve been particularly active on finding solutions to mitigate the effects the pandemic has had on Roma. Could you tell us more about your work in that area?
As the challenges for the community grew, so did our activities, in recognition of the lack of support provided for persons without a regulated legal status. In partnership with various donors (including EED, UNDP, ISI, BIRN), we engaged in awareness raising within the community, explaining measures and requirements in the Roma language, broadcasting through our portal RomaNet and via our social media platforms. For the community, these were the only sources of information in the Roma language. We continued being a voice and loud advocate via RomaNet, continuously drawing attention to the community’s emergency needs and the state’s systemic support flaws, especially for persons without regulated legal status. Donations of food and hygiene products were a necessity and we prioritised people who didn’t receive any official aid relief, like people without regulated legal status. One of the toughest obstacles brought by the pandemic was online learning, which intersected with our education commitments. We helped communities electronically enroll children in school and nurseries. For more than 200 Roma and Egyptian pupils, school transportation was missing for six whole weeks. Despite continuous pressure and requests to institutions to solve the problem quickly, this was only addressed after we submitted a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education. One of the wider project activities we delivered in this period was mapping of legal status in the Roma and Egyptian community in Podgorica, which led us to finding that 198 adults and 216 children are not recognized by the state or support organizations working in the field of statelessness, and that the most of them are children. organizations working in the field of statelessness, and that the most of them are children.
- Phiren Amenca is working alongside ENS and three other members in Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia on an Open Society Foundations Roma Initiatives Office funded project to advocate for law, policy, and practice reforms to prevent the risk of statelessness of Roma in the Western Balkans. In addition to working at the national level, the project also has a regional dimension. As Montenegro is keen to join the European Union, what do you think are some of the opportunities over the next years with regards to the accession process?
We do not see them as opportunities, we see them as commitments which Montenegro must honour. Montenegro has to achieve certain benchmarks, particularly regarding judicial reform under the acquis Chapters 23 and 24 of the accession negotiations. These reforms have the potential to change how human rights are valued and protected in law, leading to tangible results for this community in areas of employment and education in particular.
The state also has to honour the pledges given in the Poznan declaration, as well as the New EU Strategic Framework for participation, inclusion and equality of Roma and The National Strategy for social inclusion of Roma and Egyptians, which all require the state to deliver concrete results towards ending statelessness in the upcoming years.
We are uncertain how this will roll out in the future, how dedicated the new Montenegrin Government will be on the issue of statelessness or how stable the Government will be, but we are clear that any improvements on this issue aren’t achievable without more coordinated regional cooperation, which will require the unequivocal commitment and cooperation of all governments in the region.