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UNHCR urges Slovenia to resolve the problem of its "erased cases"

News Stories, 26 February 2007

© UNHCR/B.Szandelsky
UNHCR is urging the Slovenian government to resolve the cases of some 4,000 people who do not have official status. Alija Berisha, seen holding his child, has been fighting in the courts to win legal residence.

LUBLJANA, Slovenia, February 26 (UNHCR) Today is a black one for almost 4,000 people in Slovenia. Exactly 15 years ago, they were deprived of their legal residency status and the benefits that came with it, including facilitated access to nationality, housing, employment, health insurance, pensions and access to higher education.

For many years, UNHCR has been urging the Slovenian government to find a solution for this group the so-called "erased cases," many of whom are stateless in line with previous rulings by the Constitutional Court. "Whenever state borders are changed, there are individuals who end up on the wrong side with the wrong kind of documents," noted Lloyd Dakin, UNHCR's regional representative in Budapest.

Their problems began after Slovenia left the Yugoslav federation in 1991 and declared independence. The new government granted citizenship to more than 170,000 residents who were citizens of other Yugoslav republics. But some 30,000 people living in Slovenia and originating from other parts of Yugoslavia were removed from the new country's registry of residents on February 26, 1992.

Neza Kogovsek, a leading researcher on Slovenia's erased cases, said there had been a short window of opportunity when non-Slovenian residents could apply for citizenship.

"But this was not publicly announced, nor were the concerned persons warned of the consequences," added the human rights lawyer, who works for the Peace Institute in Lubljana. The authorities say they have always acted properly.

Some 12,000 people left immediately, while the rest chose to stay and contest their sudden new status as illegal immigrants. About 14,000 managed to regularise their status, following a number of Constitutional Court decisions, but some 4,000 cases remain unresolved.

In 1992, all of these individuals held the citizenship of other Yugoslav republics and were not formally stateless. But with the passage of time, many have found it increasingly difficult to maintain ties, including formal nationality, with other countries that emerged after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

At the same time, they have shown a clear attachment to Slovenia by their long stay there under difficult conditions and despite the severe social consequences of not having legal residency status.

It is these cases that UNHCR is urging the government to resolve. "In Slovenia, the problem is faced by a rather small group. There are less than 4,000, they speak Slovene, they have professional qualifications. Many of them grew up in Slovenia," Dakin said, adding: "With sufficient political will, the whole issue could be resolved quickly."

Lawyer Matevz Krivic, who has represented several of the erased cases in court, said their exact numbers are not known. He noted that aside from those who had left the country, others had died and some had even committed suicide. Krivic said many of the erased cases hold no identity papers. Some were effectively stateless, while others held papers of a country they had never lived in.

Their plight has attracted media coverage in the run up to the 15th anniversary of their changed status. The public perception of the erased cases is generally negative they are often portrayed as intruders. Most keep a low profile, with only a handful ready to fight for their rights in the courts or public forums.

The press have been reporting on the suffering of the erased cases, but much of the recent media interest has focused on the case of Alija Berisha and his high-profile fight with the help of lawyer Krivic to win legal residency status.

Alija Berisha was born in the Serbian province of Kosovo but has lived in Slovenia since he was a teenager. But his name was taken off Slovenia's residency register in 1992 and he was detained after a visit to Germany in 1993 and deported to Albania. He returned to Slovenia but was recently sent back to Germany with his wife and five small children. UNHCR has raised his case with the authorities on many occasions.

In another recent media article, a women's magazine ran a story about Dragica Lukic, a Bosnian woman who has lived in Slovenia for 22 years but has no access to social welfare benefits because her name was among those erased from the residents' register. One of her two daughters has a mental disability, but Lukic has to pay for all her medical costs and bring up the girls in a humid, mouldy apartment because she cannot get housing help.

Krivic knows of other tragic stories and cited the case of a man of Serbian origin who lived in hiding for many years because he could not regularise his status. In the summer, he would sleep in a friend's garden shed. He became sick, but could not afford to see a doctor. A Slovenian woman finally paid for the man to go to hospital he was diagnosed with cancer and died only a few days later.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Lubljana, Slovenia




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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.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

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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Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

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