Statelessness robs two men of normal lives in Croatia
Bedri Hoti knows what it means to be stateless. For years, he led a marginal existence in poverty because the country where he spent most of his life did not acknowledge his right to live there.
By contrast, Boro Topolic lived a perfectly normal life for decades, only to wake up one day and discover he had become stateless.
They are among nearly 3,000 people in Croatia who are stateless, or at risk of statelessness, most of them Roma.
Neither Bedri nor Boro is Roma. Both came to Croatia from other parts of what was the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Both suffered the consequences of administrative decisions.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is campaigning to end statelessness, which affects millions of people worldwide, denying them basic human rights that citizens take for granted.
They often are not allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married.
“Today I call on politicians, governments and legislators around the world to act now, to take and support decisive action to eliminate statelessness globally by 2024,” said High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
For Bedri, not having documents meant barely living. After the European Court of Human Rights backed him in April this year, Croatia began to put matters right. Bedri has now received a travel document issued under the 1954 Statelessness Convention, enabling him to travel and claim his rights.
Civil Rights Project Sisak, a non-governmental organization that partners with UNHCR, supported Bedri and Boro with free legal advice and legal aid.
“I had my own car and I rented my own flat. I was satisfied.”
Despite seeing progress in his case, Bedri, 56, still lives in one shabby room in an abandoned house in the town of Novska, just over 100 kilometres from the capital. His neighbours give him food and allow him to tap into their electricity supply and use their shower. For years, he has not been able to work or receive social benefits.
“I have survived only because of the kindness of individuals,” he says.
Bedri was born in Kosovo** to Albanian refugees. He moved to Croatia when he was 17.
“I came for work,” he says. “I was offered a job as a waiter in Novska and then I got work as a mechanic. I had my own car and I rented my own flat. I was satisfied.”
Bedri stayed in Novska during the Croatian war between 1991 and 1995 and was conscripted as a skilled civilian to repair vehicles for the Croatian army. However, his application for Croatian citizenship, submitted during the war, was refused on the grounds that he was an Albanian citizen.
“I had never been to Albania in my life,” he says.
He was issued with a Croatian identity card for foreign nationals.
Meanwhile Boro Topolic, now 63, was going happily about his life. For 40 years, he worked hard, paid his taxes and was never in trouble.
He came to Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1975. He worked as a welder in the shipyards of Rijeka and Split and had a job in a Zagreb factory that made steam boilers. Now he drives a taxi.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was a great insult.”
His nightmare began in May 2014, after he tried to buy the flat he rents in a municipal block in Zagreb. For this, he was required to have Croatian citizenship. He had Croatian permanent residency and a Bosnia and Herzegovina passport.
He was assured that if he renounced his citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina he would be accepted as a Croatian. He went ahead, only to have the Croatian authorities turn him down, leaving him stateless.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was a great insult.”
He found out he had become stateless when he went to pick up his documents ahead of a planned trip to Serbia, where his daughter was about to give birth. “I wanted to be there for the birth of my grandson,” he says.
When he applied for Croatian citizenship, he had been given a formal guarantee he would be accepted, on the basis of which he renounced his citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He was asked to visit the office to meet an intelligence officer. “He asked me questions I had answered a hundred times before – why was I in Croatia?” he says. “And he made insinuations about my marital status. A month later, I got a rejection.”
An official letter from the interior ministry told Boro that, for “reasons in the interests of the Republic of Croatia”, he should be denied citizenship.
“What prospects are there for a man of my age?”
It was too late for Boro to recover his Bosnia and Herzegovina citizenship. Meanwhile, he has been issued with a stateless person’s Croatian passport, which allows him to travel, although he must obtain a visa to go to Serbia.
He will also receive his pension when he retires next year, as he made full contributions. “I know there are people in worse situations,” he says.
In a worse situation was Bedri Hoti who, for nearly 25 years, could neither work nor receive benefits. The best he could hope for were odd car repair jobs that brought a little cash in hand.
Travel was out of the question and he was unable to marry.
Now he has been recognized as stateless, under the 1954 Statelessness Convention, and given a Convention travel document. In eight years, he will be able to apply for Croatian citizenship.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, there is the realization that time has been lost. Receiving a pension will be tricky since Bedri could not make contributions and social welfare will be small, at best.
“I’m 56 now,” he says wistfully. “What prospects are there for a man of my age?
If you want to know more about how you can make a difference to the lives of people like Bedri and Boro, join our #IBelong campaign to end statelessness in 10 years.