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UNHCR mobilizes lawyers to combat statelessness in Montenegro

News Stories, 31 May 2007

© UNHCR/G.Popovic
Hadzi (centre, red shorts) and Maksum (grey shorts) with some of their friends. UNHCR helped the two boys obtain Serbian nationality.

PODGORICA, Montenegro, May 31 (UNHCR) Bursting with energy, Hadzi and Maksum Miftari grin at visitors from the family living-room sofa before rushing outside to play with their friends. They seem full of life, but in legal terms the boys practically did not exist in their birthplace Montenegro or anywhere else until recently.

It seems inconceivable that bureaucratic red tape could have derailed the hopes and potential of Hadzi, aged six, and his four-year-old brother, Maksum, whose parents fled to Montenegro from Kosovo in 1999 to escape persecution based on their Roma ethnicity.

But that almost happened until UNHCR brought in lawyers to register their births and obtain proof of nationality essential for getting access to basic rights such as education, health, employment and even marriage. Hundreds of other members of the minority Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian people in Montenegro have not been so lucky.

The two boys were entitled to Serbian nationality through their parents, who were born and bred in the province of Kosovo. They failed to register their sons immediately after birth and later found themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze.

"I tried to register Hadzi about two months after he was born, but [the registry office] asked to see my marriage certificate," said the boy's father, Idrizi Miftari. Municipal registry offices throughout the former Yugoslav Federation kept marriage records and regularly issued copies of marriage certificates, but Idrizi was married in the western Kosovo town of Djakova and was told that his records had been lost during the conflict of 1999.

He travelled to Serbia in the hope that the records had been transferred there by Serbian civil servants fleeing Kosovo after NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces entered the territory in June 1999 and placed it under United Nations administration. Idrizi had no luck there either and returned to his family in Podgorica's impoverished Konik neighbourhood.

The Miftaris had almost given up hope of registering their sons when UNHCR stepped in last year by focusing a US State Department-funded legal aid programme on Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian families in Konik who were missing important documentation.

UNHCR's implementing partner, Catholic Relief Services, hired an outreach assistant from the community and he informed locals of their rights and offered free legal assistance. The assistant was soon approached by the Miftaris.

The lawyers got round the problem of the missing marriage documents by using hospital records as proof of birth. The registry office accepted this and issued them with birth certificates that they used to certify the boys' Serbian nationality.

The case of Hadzi and Maksum is one of many success stories registered by UNHCR's legal aid programmes in the Balkans region, but there is still much more to be done to help people left at risk of statelessness due to problems over civil registration or a lack of documentation.

These cases are time consuming and can involve complicated representation in administrative and judicial proceedings. They also require close coordination between legal aid providers throughout the region. Yet this work is vital for both stateless people and the countries in which they live.

"Without proof of citizenship, people slip through the cracks in society and they are cut off from important rights," said Maja Lazic, coordinator for UNHCR's regional legal aid project. "Conversely, without registered, documented inhabitants, states are unable to effectively govern their populations."

UNHCR's legal aid implementing partners have assisted thousands of displaced persons in Montenegro since 1998. They are focusing increasingly on the issue of statelessness and, since November last year, have helped 146 people in Montenegro obtain proof of birth and/or nationality.

The refugee agency is trying to better assess the number of people at risk of statelessness in Montenegro in order to develop a comprehensive and lasting solution to the problem. By some estimates, up to 6,500 members of the Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian population may be at risk due to lack of documents.

Solutions will lie in continued legal assistance and outreach campaigns, as well as advocacy for a more active, open and transparent approach by the state bodies responsible for birth registration. They will also lie in improved access for displaced persons to documentation in Serbia. UNHCR hopes this will be achieved through legal aid providers and digitalization of documents held by municipal registries in Serbia.

Hadzi and Maksum, meanwhile, seemed delighted with their newly acquired proof of nationality, which they will need to access civil, economic, social, and political rights. Once they realized that UNHCR visitors were not doctors come to vaccinate them, the boys proudly showed off their birth certificates.

By Gordana Popovic and John Palmer in Podgorica, Montenegro




UNHCR country pages

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

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

Civil Registration and the Prevention of Statelessness: A Survey of Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians (RAE) in Montenegro

Results of a study carried out in 2008 by UNHCR, with support from the European Commission and UNICEF, May 2009.

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.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

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.

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.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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