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