UNHCR launches free legal aid project for Roma in Serbia

Briefing Notes, 6 May 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 May 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Belgrade today, we are launching the first comprehensive free legal aid project for the Roma communities in Serbia and the region as part of an EU-funded regional programme "Social Inclusion and Access to Human Rights of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in the Western Balkans". The project covers Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia including Kosovo.

The main aim is helping Roma communities gain free registration in birth registers leading to issuance of personal documents and resulting in better access to social, health, education and employment. The programme will be implemented over the next 18 months by our mobile teams and our partners, including other UN agencies, NGOs and government counterparts.

In Serbia, 20 municipalities will be covered by the project. In these areas, UNHCR, through its regular field work over years with refugees and internally displaced persons, has found the largest number of Roma without identity papers. These communities include those displaced from Kosovo, Roma returned from the Western Europe on the basis of readmission agreements, and the local Roma population.

The issue in Serbia was particularly aggravated by Kosovo crisis in 1999, with the arrival of displaced persons from Kosovo. Many registry books in Kosovo had been damaged, destroyed or went missing. Roma populations are additionally threatened due to their frequent movements, abject poverty, discrimination and marginalization.

Lack of identity papers is a serious problem in the Western Balkans, creating a world of "invisible" people outside state systems. In many situations authorities lacked either initiative or resources to address these issues.

According to the estimates, between 100,000 to 500,000 Roma live in Serbia. Out of this figure, 23,000 are officially registered internally displaced persons from Kosovo. Most of these people are unable to exercise their basic rights due to the lack of personal documents.

Serbia has made commitments within the framework of Roma Decade and is to take over the chairmanship of this forum in June.