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UNHCR starts free legal aid for Roma communities in Serbia

News Stories, 6 May 2008

© UNHCR/I.Szabo
A displaced Roma in Belgrade carries her baby son in one hand and shows his birth certificate with the other.

BELGRADE, Serbia, May 6 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday in the Serbian capital of Belgrade launched the first comprehensive free legal aid programme for ethnic Roma communities in the Balkans region.

The main goal is to ensure that all Roma get registered at birth for free. This will lead to administrative follow-up and issuance of personal documents, resulting in better access to social welfare, health care, education and employment.

The European Union-funded 1 million euro project will cover Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, including Kosovo. Serbia will get the biggest share of funding 400,000 euros in the programme.

Ljuan Koka, head of the Serbian government's Roma National Strategy Secretariat, said the project was very important. "Apart from the immediate benefit to Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in getting their personal documents and gaining access to their rights, this will be the only way to truly determine the size of the Roma population in Serbia."

UNHCR mobile teams will implement the programme over the next 18 months with the help of the agency's partners, including other UN organizations, non-governmental organizations and government departments.

In Serbia, the project will cover the 20 municipalities which have the largest numbers of Roma lacking identity papers and in need of legal aid, according to UNHCR research. These communities include people displaced from Kosovo as well as Roma returned from Western Europe under readmission agreements.

Many of the Roma from Kosovo lost their papers during the 1999 crisis, when they fled to Serbia. Roma populations are also threatened due to their often nomadic existence, abject poverty, discrimination and marginalization.

Lack of identity papers is one of the gravest problems in the Western Balkans a consequence of the turbulent 1990s when the former Yugoslav federation disintegrated. Many people were left outside the state systems and the authorities often lacked the initiative or resources to address the issues.

The problem is reflected in the number of Roma estimated to be living in Serbia, with figures fluctuating from 100,000 to half-a-million, including some 23,000 Roma registered as internally displaced people (IDPs) from Kosovo. Most of the Roma in Serbia are unable to exercise their basic rights due to the lack of personal documents.

"Without documents and civil registration Roma will be continuously marginalized and will not be able to integrate into society. UNHCR is sensitive to this problem and will continue to assist the marginalized Roma population, especially Roma IDPs from Kosovo, as well as the authorities in Serbia to try to resolve the problem," Lennart Kotsalainen, the refugee agency's representative in Serbia, said at Tuesday's launch in Belgrade.

Serbia wants to achieve universal birth registration and universal access to services.

By Vesna Petkovic in Belgrade, Serbia

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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.