Free legal aid helps Kosovo communities

News Stories, 14 May 2013

© UNHCR/Iurcev
Arsen's mother sits with his children in their house in Gracanica, Kosovo, showing the birth certificates that make it possible for them to access assistance and register for school.

PRISTINA, Kosovo, May 14 (UNHCR) When Arsen Hamiti brought his family home from their war-time refuge in Germany, he discovered that his four daughters born in exile faced a formidable obstacle to a normal life: they lacked that simple but fundamental document, the birth certificate.

Arsen and his wife Sanela, who met in Germany, had received official declarations of birth from the Frankfurt hospital where their four little girls seven, six, four and three years were born. But arriving back in Gracanica, his original town in Kosovo, the 34-year-old Roma man discovered that was not enough.

In Kosovo, without proof of birth, it is very hard to establish a legal identity and it is therefore impossible to access any assistance, even enrolment in school. This issue in particular affects Kosovo's Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities long-established groups in the Balkans claiming ancient origins outside the region.

UNHCR is trying to prevent this by incessantly advocating for removing any obstacle to obtaining a birth certificate.

The problem becomes evident with children repatriated under readmission agreements with various countries since a birth certificate is required to register births that occurred abroad. Children who were not born in Kosovo very often do not have acceptable documents and are not recognized before the law.

"When we arrived in Kosovo, we approached the municipality to apply for social assistance. But we were told that, without identity cards and birth certificates issued by Kosovo institutions, we were not eligible. The German documents were not enough," said Arsen, who had fled Kosovo in 1999 because of the war there.

As everywhere in the world, the procedure in Kosovo for getting personal documentation can be complicated and costly: UNHCR is working closely with the authorities and international agencies to address this problem.

Since 2006, UNHCR has assisted more than 14,000 people to receive documents through civil status registration and civil registration programmes implemented by Civil Rights Programme Kosovo. By providing free legal aid, the local NGO helps families overcome language, procedural or bureaucratic barriers.

In particular, the authorities charged a fee for late registrations, a serious obstacle for some families. But in March 2013, the authorities for a second consecutive year waived penalties and fees for civil status services for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Arsen's family, who were assisted by UNHCR, could benefit.

"Luckily, UNHCR put us in contact with a very kind lawyer from Civil Rights Program Kosovo," said Arsen. "He helped us and we could obtain all needed documents for free [which Arsen has neatly archived in a folder] and we receive now a monthly social assistance."

UNHCR estimates that each year nearly 4,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians face the same problems as Arsen. The population consists mainly of voluntary returnee children from the region and readmitted children, all born in displacement and lacking evidence of birth meeting Kosovo regulations.

"A significant percentage of these communities is without either civil status registration or personal identity documentation," said UNHCR Chief of Mission Jo Hegenauer. "This is why we welcome the decision to exempt these communities from the payment of a fee: an enormous help which relieves these already vulnerable communities from an additional financial burden."

He said that offering free legal aid services and advocating to prevent statelessness and protect people at risk of statelessness remained part of UNHCR's daily commitment. In Kosovo, as everywhere, people like those in Arsen's family are entitled to have an identity and a nationality; it is a fundamental human right.

By Elisabetta Iurcev in Pristina, Kosovo

* Any reference to Kosovo is intended under UN Security Council resolution 1244/99