Stepping out of the Shadows of Statelessness

23 December 2016, SARAJEVO– Nuhija Abazi shyly pulls out a so-called “military record book” from his pocket. The timeworn document, listing the dates of his participation as a member of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in the 1992-95 war that ravaged this Balkan country, is the only written proof of his existence. It mentions the 5th of March 1964 as the date of his birth, which is near impossible to prove, as Nuhija was born outside a health facility. Sharing the fate of so many Roma children, his birth was never registered, which is a legal precondition in BiH to obtain any kind of personal identification document, including proof of citizenship. Throughout his life, his status of being “legally invisible” has deprived him of access to fundamental rights – education, health care, social welfare, or stable employment.

Nuhija Abazi decided not to give himself up to his unfortunate destiny, and, with the help of UNHCR and its partner NGO providing free legal aid in Bosnia and Herzegovina “Vaša prava (Your rights) BiH”, he finally has a chance to succeed. Yet, the process of getting there is long and painstaking.

Portrait of Nuhija Abazi in his home in a shanty Roma settlement on the outskirts of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nuhija was born outside a health facility and he was never registered in birth records, which is a legal precondition to obtain any kind of personal identity/identification, including proof of citizenship. © UNHCR/ Vanja Cerimagic

The first step to legal identity was for the responsible authorities in the capital Sarajevo to virtually reconstruct the circumstances of his birth, for the purpose of his subsequent birth registration. In November 2015, with the assistance of UNHCR and “Vaša prava”, a local centre for social welfare appointed a guardian to help Nuhija (who is illiterate) by collecting relevant evidence for the enrolment in the registers of birth and, eventually, in the citizenship registry. As there was no documentary evidence of Nuhija’s birth, and the exact identity of his mother is unknown (she allegedly abandoned him a few months after he was born and has died in the meantime), which are the key elements according to the local laws for birth registration, the authorities eventually accepted a recommendation long fought for by UNHCR to rely on the testimonies of witnesses – friends and relatives of his late father – to provide at least some basic information about Nuhija’s birth. Based on these testimonies, in August 2016, the municipal authorities in Sarajevo issued a decision that Nuhija Abazi could at long last have his birth registered and obtain the all-important birth certificate. The first step out of the shadow of being “legally invisible” was made. With the help of UNHCR and “Vaša prava“, his ultimate goal, to be officially confirmed as a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is now within reach.

Nuhija Abazi visiting “Vaša prava (Your rights) BiH”, UNHCR’s partner NGO in Bosnia and Herzegovina, providing free legal aid to refugees, returnees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and persons at risk of becoming stateless, regarding his identity. © UNHCR/ Vanja Cerimagic

In the meantime, Nuhija lives in a shanty Roma settlement on the outskirts of Sarajevo, anxious about the uncertain outcome of his kafkaesque struggle for identity. He makes his living by collecting at the nearby garbage dump whatever he can then sell at the local flee market. “If I could only get some papers, I would do anything, even if I have to clean toilets,” says this quiet man and adds: “Or at least I could get some social welfare and eat in the public kitchen.”

The story of Nuhija Abazi is a complicated case showcasing the gaps that still exist in practice for the “legally invisible” persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also an example of an important problem that affects many people in a similar situation in this country. The majority of the population at risk of statelessness in BiH are Roma, many of whom are not registered at birth and as a result, are unable to prove their BiH citizenship. To address the risk of statelessness, UNHCR, together with local partners, has undertaken numerous activities in recent years, supporting provision of free legal aid, campaigning for changes in the law and subsequent capacity building of the authorities to strengthen birth and citizenship registration, as well as funding Roma mediators and supporting Roma NGOs to increase the awareness of the importance of birth registration in Roma communities. In addition to undertaking extensive field visits to all known Roma communities, UNHCR has engaged in community-level focus group meetings, together with all the relevant partners, to additionally highlight the necessity of the registration in birth and citizenship records and provide families with information on how to register their children.

Nuhija Abazi showing documents to UNHCR staff as a proof of his participation as a member of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1992-95 war regarding his identity. © UNHCR/ Vanja Cerimagic

As a result, the number of persons at risk of statelessness among Roma has been significantly reduced from an estimate by the BiH Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) of 4,500 in 2009, to 427 people who were identified through field visits in 2013. This figure was further reduced by means of an intensive campaign to 58 known cases of persons at risk of statelessness at end 2015. In 2016, UNHCR continued to work with the MHRR and other authorities and partners in BiH to ensure a systematic identification of people who still remain without birth and citizenship registration, and to prevent the risk of statelessness.

If you want to know more about how you can make a difference to the lives of people like Nuhija, join our #IBelong campaign to end statelessness in 10 years.

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