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Slovenian authorities turned legal resident into asylum seeker

News Stories, 16 January 2007

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Alija Berisha holds up a newspaper article about people who were erased from Slovenia's register of legal residents. He is fighting a legal battle to be allowed to live in Slovenia.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, January 16 (UNHCR) Alija Berisha is puzzled and angry. "Why do I have to ask for asylum in my own country? I have a right to live in Slovenia with my family," the ethnic Kosovan Roma tells a UNHCR visitor.

Berisha is a victim of the break-up of Yugoslavia, one of thousands of people left in limbo when Slovenia became independent in 1991. UNHCR has been lobbying for a solution for years and has repeatedly raised Berisha's case with the authorities.

"Avoiding statelessness is part of our mandate. The situation of the so-called erased in Slovenia clearly creates a legal limbo for a substantial group of people, and that should be resolved as quickly as possible," says Michael Lindenbauer, UNHCR's Budapest-based deputy regional representative, referring to thousands of people removed from Slovenia's residency registry in the 1990s.

Life used to be much simpler for Berisha, who first migrated to Slovenia from his native Kosovo in 1986 when he was 15 years old. Both places formed part of the Yugoslav federation at the time. But Slovenia declared independence 15 years ago, while Kosovo is nominally a province of Serbia.

Berisha joined a large electrical engineering firm in the north-east city of Maribor and was climbing up the company ladder when Yugoslavia started disintegrating in the early 1990s. Possessing a Slovenian ID card and paying taxes to the government, he did not feel threatened and continued to use his Yugoslav passport to visit his ailing mother in Kosovo.

But things started to go wrong when he went to visit a relative in Germany for a few days in 1993. He was arrested on his return, charged with illegal residence and locked up in a detention centre.

To his bewilderment, Berisha was deported to Albania a country he had never been to. In court papers backing his appeal to remain in Slovenia, Berisha charged that his Slovenian papers were confiscated before he boarded the plane to Tirana and said he was refused permission to call relatives or his employer.

He also alleged that a police officer told him that Slovenia was for pure Slovenes and they did not want his type living in the country.

The Slovenian government denies his allegations and maintains that he is an illegal immigrant.

The Albanian authorities sent him back to Slovenia, where he was locked up again before managing to flee to Germany. "I was desperate. I did not want to end up in detention again for nothing," he recalls.

A German judge granted him temporary permission to stay in the country in 1995 and he found a job in the southern German town of Stuttgart, got married and started a family. But the court ruling ran out in June last year and Berisha had no choice but to agree to voluntary repatriation to Kosovo. The German authorities arranged for him to return to Kosovo via Slovenia, where Berisha's brother a Slovenian citizen had hired a lawyer to fight his case.

Berisha has been staying in asylum centres with his wife and five children since arriving back here in September 2005, while former Slovenian Constitutional Court judge Matevz Krivic argues his case in court. He has had some victories and Berisha's case is getting a lot of local media coverage and public support.

"We managed to avert deportation twice by administrative court decisions," says Krivic. Berisha and his lawyer are fighting on several fronts: restoration of permanent residence status in Slovenia; basic asylum protection; and dismissal of a pending deportation order to Germany.

He is one of the so-called "erased cases." When Slovenia become independent it offered citizenship to habitual residents who were originally from other Yugoslav republics some 170,000 people successfully applied, but thousands more failed to follow the correct procedures and were removed from the residence registry.

A UNHCR study in 1997 put the number of stateless people in Slovenia at between 5,000 and 10,000. The refugee agency has helped to win recognition for some cases, but others like Berisha remain in limbo.

"UNHCR continues to bring up Berisha's and similar cases with the authorities," notes the refugee agency's Lindenbauer, while the lawyer, Krivic, says: "I am quite optimistic that the case will be resolved."

But the long-drawn out battle has taken its toll on Berisha. "All I want is to work and fend for my family," he says with a sigh.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Ljubljana, Slovenia




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UN Conventions on Statelessness

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Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

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Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

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