Stateless girl in Croatia dreams of having "papers"
Medina Dibrani is like any other playful, curious nine-year-old. At her house in Sisak, a city of some 50,000 people in central Croatia, she likes watching Pink Panther cartoons, drawing, making houses out of Lego and playing with her favourite toys: a stuffed frog, a doll called Marina, and a ragged dog called Lila.
She also likes going to school, where her favourite subject is mathematics. But enrolling Medina in primary school is fraught with problems, as is taking her to the doctor, or on a short trip to neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit relatives. Even registering for a library card is impossible.
If she could travel somewhere, she would choose France, the country where she was born in the town of Pontarlier in 2012. At the time, her mother's name was entered incorrectly in her birth certificate. Four years later, the family came to Croatia, where her mother is from, and learned that Medina’s birth certificate from France was not valid. As a result, she could not obtain Croatian documents, despite her mother’s nationality.
“'She can't, she can't, she can't!’ Whatever we ask for, that is the answer," says her mother, Gemida Dibrani.
To correct the error in the birth certificate, her parents would have to go through a long and expensive administrative procedure in France which they cannot afford. And so, Medina does not exist in the eyes of the State. She is one of 2,886 people in Croatia who, according to the 2011 population census, self-identified as either stateless or at risk of statelessness.
They are not alone. Statelessness impacts millions of people worldwide. Without proof of citizenship, they are unable to get an education, obtain medical treatment, travel freely, seek a job, or even buy a SIM card. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is seeking to end statelessness by 2024 through its #IBelong Campaign.
During a visit to Croatia in July 2021, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, met with Medina and was struck by her story. "We can see that it takes years to resolve situations like Medina's, and solutions need to be reached now,” she said.
“UNHCR stands ready to support the Government of Croatia in establishing a statelessness determination procedure that would allow for quick and efficient processing of cases like Medina's. We cannot allow another child to be robbed of his or her dreams due to statelessness."
By setting out criterion to determine if a person is stateless, governments can put in place a means to give them an official legal status, and with it a set of basic human rights. In Europe, 14 countries have established statelessness determination procedures.
Medina’s dreams include going to Disneyland in France and riding on the giant carousel. When she grows up, she would like to have a house with a large yard. She would draw white clouds and a rainbow on the walls of her room. "I adore rainbows," Medina says. She would love to be a policewoman because she likes to bring order.
But many bureaucratic hurdles remain if she is to complete her education. She attended first grade but could not get the certificate she needed to continue to second grade due to her lack of identification documents. The Civil Rights Project Sisak, a UNHCR partner that provides free legal aid to stateless people in Croatia, managed to get an exception for Medina so she could obtain a personal identification number, but she had to re-take first grade to obtain the certificate and move up.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in Spring 2020, the school moved classes online. Unlike other students, Medina did not receive the electronic tablet she needed to follow the classes. UNHCR stepped in and provided Medina with the necessary equipment and Wi-Fi connection to make sure she did not lose any more learning time.
Medina is also not entitled to social welfare assistance although her parents are unemployed and in dire need of help.
UNHCR and the Civil Rights Project have initiated court proceedings in Croatia to officially establish Medina’s mother as her parent so she can receive a new birth certificate. Once she has that, Medina could finally get Croatian nationality.
For now, she issues "papers" to her toys – sheets with their names and a sketch of them – and slides them into a plastic photo album.
She would like to be a mermaid like the one on the front of her pink school bag. She could swim anywhere in the world because "mermaids don't need papers."
More than going to Disneyland or having a pet lion, Medina says, "I would like to have papers."