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UNHCR helping refugees avoid statelessness in Montenegro

News Stories, 5 August 2008

© UNHCR Montenegro
Refugee boy Adnan, playing with his schoolbag in front of his family, has officially become a person in Montenegro seven years after his birth.

PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO, Aug. 5 (UNHCR) At the age of seven, Adnan Behuli finally legally exists. Although the young refugee boy was born in a hospital, he was until recently officially "invisible" in Montenegro, because his birth had never been registered.

Now, with the help of UNHCR's legal aid implementing partners, Catholic Relief Services/Legal Centre, the boy has a birth certificate a legal identity that will allow him to enrol in elementary school this September.

Adnan is one of 4,338 Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees living in Montenegro who fled conflict in Kosovo in 1999. Sometimes called Gypsies, they make up just under one-fifth of the 24,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia who still live in Montenegro.

These days 220 Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian families live in Konik refugee camp in Podgorica, which is managed by the UN refugee agency's implementing partner, the Red Cross of Montenegro. Adnan's father struggles to support his nine children on the 200 euros ($311 U.S.) he earns every month as a street cleaner..

"In addition to extreme poverty and generally low levels of education, the lack of personal documents and/or civil registration represents a serious obstacle to the integration of Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees into mainstream Montenegrin society," says UNHCR's Representative in Montenegro, Serge Ducasse. "Many of their children are denied school registration and they can't get proper jobs or full social services. Without proper documents Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees are not recognized as persons before the law and are often in effect stateless. This statelessness can be carried down to future generations."

Roma often fail to register their children's births. Not having one document leads to a "chain reaction" where individuals are unable to secure other documents and end up without any basic rights. Population movements over decades of conflicts in the Balkans have exacerbated this problem, as documents were lost and families were separated.

A study carried out earlier this year by CRS/Legal Centre found that some 46 percent of Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees living in and around Konik camp were at risk of statelessness

To solve the problem, UNHCR is putting the emphasis on securing legal representation to help Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees from Kosovo in Montenegro navigate the legal hurdles and get registered on a scale never seen before. This is being done through a regional European Union Roma project being implemented in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

"We hope that by assisting a large number of cases, we will help bring about systemic changes and make it easier for others to carry out these tasks in the future without lawyers," Ducasse explained.

Little Adnan Behuli is one of the early success stories. "I'm so happy now," says his father, Behrim, who lost an older son during the war in Kosovo and has no desire to go back. Unlike the other children who attend the branch school in the camp, Adnan will now get the chance to go to a local school outside the camp, where the quality of education is much higher, and he will therefore have more opportunities to integrate into wider Montenegrin society.

"I've been feeling guilty all these years," says Behrim, "but now my son will start school and will be able to have an education and hopefully get a proper job, not like his father."

By Charlotte Lyne and Gordana Popovic in Podgorica, Montenegro




UNHCR country pages

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.

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.

Stateless People

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

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

Statelessness and Women

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.

Statelessness and Women

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Statelessness: A Message from UNHCR

An address from UNHCR's Director of International Protection Volker Türk to mark International Human Rights Day and the launch of a new report on Statelessness in the United States.
UNHCR : Breakthrough on StatelessnessPlay video

UNHCR : Breakthrough on Statelessness

UNHCR's ministerial conference in Geneva takes a great step forward in resolving the issue of statelessness. On the sidelines of the meeting, Serbia and Turkmenistan acceded to the statelessness conventions.
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Egyptian actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam recently visited Iraqi refugees in Syria. Imam praised the Syrian government for its hospitality and for opening its schools to Iraqi students.