How Roma are made stateless for generations

These people are in legal limbo, deprived of valid personal records and documentation. In many cases, so are their children. Jonathan Lee reports on the forgotten victims of Europe’s last refugee crisis.

Roma in Odessa
Roma in Odessa, Ukraine proudly show their IDs after a successful ERRC paralegal project empowered local Roma to fight for their rights and obtain documentation.

This year, the Czech Government are set to remove the pig farm situated on the former site of Lety Concentration Camp, and begin constructing a centre to commemorate the Romani prisoners who were murdered there during the Second World War.

This long awaited state recognition of a site of Roma genocide may grant a small sense of closure to those European Roma for whom the horrors of war still echo. Yet for many Roma, the after-effects of a much more recent conflict are still felt in very immediate terms in the Balkan countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Thousands of Roma here are still bearing the costs of being displaced by war in the late 1990’s as well as their children, many of whom are born without a nationality.

‘They treat me differently’ says Elena, a Romani mother in Macedonia. ‘In the hospitals, they don't treat my children. I always have to beg the doctors to treat them for free.

'For other people, it is much easier… if my children had birth certificates they would treat us much better... [I could] go to hospital and help my children get nationality…I [could] send my children to school so they can have a better life.’

Elena is stateless. That is, Elena was born in Skopje, but despite living there her entire life, she is without any of the documents which would grant her the basic rights of citizenship which most of us take for granted. As a result she is also denied access to basic public services.

She cannot vote, expect free healthcare, send her children to school, access social welfare, or even get a formal job. She is also Romani – a member of Europe’s largest and most persecuted ethnic minority. Because of her ethnicity and lack of nationality, she faces daily discrimination in a mutually reinforcing cycle of institutional racism and statelessness.

Like many stateless Roma, her father came to the country from Kosovo after the war forced him from his home. Their story of displacement is one that is repeated all across the Western Balkans, with thousands still living in UN Refugee Camps – that remain open almost two decades after war ended in the region.

Many of these families who were forced to flee were also victims of war crimes, including thousands from Kosovo where soldiers looted homes and burned settlements to the ground; acts of ethnic cleansing by Kosovar Albanians between June and August 1999. Once in the relative safety of their new host countries, the precarious situation for these Romani refugees was further exacerbated by the destruction or disappearance of official registers in many territories affected by conflict.

The ruins of the Roma Mahala in Mitrovice, Kosovo after it was burned to the ground on 21st June 1999 making 8,000 people refugees.

In these emerging post-Yugoslav countries, new citizenship laws and procedures were created within the context of mass displacement in the region. These were later followed by declarations of independence – Montenegro in 2006, along with Serbia, on the dissolution of the Serbia and Montenegro union, and Kosovo in 2008 – which threw up new barriers for Roma who suddenly found themselves without a paper trail to prove their official existence in the newly formed states.

While many displaced people could reconstruct their personal histories and records in the aftermath of war, for many Roma – already facing marginalization and discrimination – producing the necessary records was impossible. These people were left behind in a legal limbo, deprived of valid personal records and documentation.

But to see Romani statelessness purely as collateral damage of the Yugoslav wars, as some government officials do, would be to ignore the pervading institutional racism which renders many Roma beneath citizenship.

According to Đorđe Jovanović of the European Roma Rights Centre, the main barrier to the rights of citizenship is lack of birth registration. This is the primary requirement for being entered into citizenship registries. ‘This is not an issue of culture or poverty,’ says Jovanović. ‘Romani parents are being denied registering their children at birth – either because of their own statelessness, or because of discrimination from state officials.’ Parents who are undocumented are commonly barred from registering their children’s births, thereby passing on the risk of statelessness from generation to generation, perpetuating the problem.

Many working in government hold stereotypical views of Roma, arguing that Roma are indifferent to being documented, or ‘avoided being in the system’, or that their ‘traditional lifestyle’ makes them responsible for their own lack of registration. Speaking with affected Roma themselves, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Legal activists speak with Macedonian Roma without identification documents who are fighting against the cycle of repeat forced evictions and denial of services and employment.

Interviewed Roma explained how they are reminded daily of the link between documentation and inclusion when they are bluntly refused access to services, employment and basic freedoms.

‘I cannot find a job…because I cannot be registered as an employee if I do not have ID,’ said Stefan, a Romani man interviewed in Montenegro last year as part of research into Roma statelessness. ‘Since I do not have documents, I cannot prove who am I, and often have to spend night in prison without being guilty of anything… If I want to have a [fixed] telephone number, I must register my number by using personal ID. I have no reputation or status. And I have no way to explain to my children why this is happening to us.’

Lack of access to healthcare is where the human cost of this discrimination is most keenly felt. Benjamin, a Romani man interviewed by the European Roma Rights Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina described how all four of his children had died within 40 days of birth. Without the health insurance afforded by national documentation, many Roma live in fear of their families or themselves falling ill – and being unable to pay for health care.

‘I am afraid that one of my children [will] get sick, and I will not be able to take them to the hospital,’ says Elena. ‘Because they are not registered, I cannot take care of them fully. I am very angry at this situation…I would ask help only for my children, nothing else.’

The #RomaBelong project is a joint initiative by the European Roma Rights Centre, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and the European Network on Statelessness challenging Roma Statelessness in the Western Balkans and Ukraine.

Roma in the region cannot afford another generation of children to grow up without the ‘right to have rights’. Each stateless generation carries a high probability of passing their statelessness on to their children, and Roma who are denied the rights of citizenship will live shorter, harder and much more unfulfilled lives.

Worse, this will not happen through accident or circumstance, but through the continued workings of antigypsyism in institutions and society. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that a primary goal is ‘to leave no-one behind’, but new research highlights an alarming number of Roma who are not just ‘left behind’, but actively excluded through severe discrimination and institutional racism.

If we are to see real, lasting changes in the lives of stateless Roma in the Western Balkans, there must first be changes in laws, in the burden of responsibility for addressing statelessness, and in the attitudes of government officials. The longer it takes for this to happen, the more Romani children will reach maturity without ever attending school, the more parents will be forced into ever more precarious work to feed their families, the more babies will be born who may never reach childhood, and the more Roma will be pushed further and further towards the margins of society – ignored, persecuted and excluded.

Jonathan Lee is a Romani activist and writer from Swansea, South Wales. He is currently based in Budapest where he works as the Communications Coordinator for the European Roma Rights Centre.