Stateless in Serbia: how to survive without existing

Telling the Human Story, 17 July 2014

© UNHCR/D.Rako
Raman's difficult live was even harder because he was not recognized as a citizen of any country: "I just want to be a regular citizen."

BELGRADE, Serbia, July 17 (UNHCR) Raman* is not asking for much. "I just want to be a regular citizen," says the 27-year-old Roma, whose life has been in a legal limbo for years because he is not fully recognized as a citizen by any country.

The young man was born in Kosovo in 1987, when the Balkans territory was a part of Yugoslavia, but his birth was never registered. "At that time, we did not know anything about birth registration and documents, nor how they would influence my life," he told UNHCR.

The refugee agency has been supporting his legal bid, through the Serbian non-governmental organization Praxis, to get recognition and citizenship. He has had some success, but getting a nationality and associated rights still eludes him.

Raman was just 11-years-old during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, when his family fled from Kosovo. But without documentation or a nationality, he and his family had difficulty accessing basic services, including education and health care, and he also faced harassment and trouble travelling and finding work.

"It is not easy. I have been stopped by the police many times and threatened to be arrested and fined, because I did not have an identity card. I lived in fear," he revealed. These are problems shared by many of the world's estimated 10 million stateless people, including some Roma born in the former Yugoslavia who never acquired a nationality.

Growing up in Kosovo, Raman led a hard but happy life. His father died when Raman was a baby and his mother left him and his five siblings with their uncle, who was good to the children. But, Raman observed, "We did not go to school because we had to work with him in order to survive."

At the end of the Kosovo conflict in June 1999, Serbs and Roma started fleeing as the Serbian army withdrew. They faced new challenges in Belgrade. Raman stayed with his brothers in an abandoned mud house, but the boys were unable to get assistance because they did not have documents to show they were internally displaced from Kosovo.

Then he had some luck, being reunited with his long-lost mother, who lived as a displaced person in the town of Smederevo. Raman stayed for four years, then moved back to Belgrade in search of work. It was an eye-opener.

"As I was reaching adulthood, I began understanding how difficult it is to be without documents," said Raman, who helped his stepfather gather waste material for recycling. Without papers and an education, he could not get anything better.

He cited instances of police harassment and told of being threatened with arrest while on the way to buy medicine because he did not have ID documents. Once he got into trouble after an accident involving the vehicle he used to collect plastic, scrap metal and paper.

Raman said he was punished for not having a driving licence. "The police found me at my home even though I had no documents. I was sentenced to two years imprisonment suspended, even though I did not exist anywhere." He felt that when the state wanted him, they found him, but when he needed the state, he became invisible.

Many stateless Roma displaced from Kosovo simply cannot afford to go through the time-consuming, expensive process of applying for birth registration and citizenship documents. Some don't even know they can apply.

Raman was lucky. His case was taken up by Praxis, which provides legal aid to the most marginalized communities, including migrants and ethnic minorities such as the Roma. It receives funding from UNHCR.

"Praxis offered to help me free of charge," Raman said. The NGO and others worked with the government to adopt a new procedure for establishing the time and place of birth. This allowed for Raman's own birth to be registered in December 2013. But while Raman was delighted to have his existence finally recognized, it was not all good news. "I still do not have an identity card. In a way I still do not have rights. I have no citizenship."

The main problem is proving that his parents had citizenship and providing evidence of a formal residence, without which he cannot obtain an ID card and enjoy the full rights of citizenship. In a 2011 survey, UNHCR found about 4,500 Roma in Serbia did not have birth registration documents or personal documentation.

But the Serbian Ministry of Interior has committed itself to prioritize such cases and to be flexible. Serbia's National Assembly, moreover, has adopted legislation allowing those without a formal residence to register their local social welfare centre as their home.

However, due to a narrow interpretation of the new legislation by the authorities, this relates only to those that never had a registered residence, while most displaced Roma who live in informal settlements did have a registered residence in Kosovo and cannot register an address while in displacement. They thus have a limited access to basic rights. Despite this, with support from UNHCR and civil society, Serbia has taken important steps to resolve the problems faced by many Roma, including civil registration and documentation, by the end of 2015.

Raman remains optimistic about his dream of citizenship. "I will be able to move freely. I will be able to get a driving licence. Maybe, I can get a job with the municipal cleaning service. I will be recognized as the father of my three daughters," he said. "I won't have to worry about feeding my family and buying medicine for them. I dream of having at least one good room with water and electricity. I just want to be a regular citizen."

*Full name withheld for protection reasons

By Davor Rako in Belgrade, Serbia




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

Stateless People

A tough task determining the true number of stateless people

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

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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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

Stateless in Beirut

Since Lebanon was established as a country in the 1920s there has been a long-standing stateless population in the country.

There are three main causes for this: the exclusion of certain persons from the latest national census of 1932; legal gaps which deny nationality to some group of individuals; and administrative hurdles that prevent parents from providing proof of the right to citizenship of their newborn children.

Furthermore, a major reason why this situation continues is that under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, only men can; meaning a child with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother will inherit their father's statelessness.

Although exact numbers are not known, it is generally accepted that many thousands of people lack a recognized nationality in Lebanon and the problem is growing due to the conflict in Syria. Over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict and with over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country this number will increase.

Registering a birth in Lebanon is very complicated and for Syrian parents can include up to five separate administrative steps, including direct contact with the Syrian government. As the first step in establishing a legal identity, failure to properly register a child's birth puts him or her at risk of statelessness and could prevent them travelling with their parents back to Syria one day.

The consequences of being stateless are devastating. Stateless people cannot obtain official identity documents, marriages are not registered and can pass their statelessness on to their children Stateless people are denied access to public healthcare facilities at the same conditions as Lebanese nationals and are unable to own or to inherit property. Without documents they are unable to legally take jobs in public administrations and benefit from social security.

Children can be prevented from enrolling in public schools and are excluded from state exams. Even when they can afford a private education, they are often unable to obtain official certification.

Stateless people are not entitled to passports so cannot travel abroad. Even movement within Lebanon is curtailed, as without documents they risk being detained for being in the country unlawfully. They also do not enjoy basic political rights as voting or running for public office.

This is the story of Walid Sheikhmouss Hussein and his family from Beirut.

Stateless in Beirut

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