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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

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UN Conventions on Statelessness

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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.

Stateless People

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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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