“When they called to tell me that I had been issued documents, I was so happy that I burst into tears! People around me thought I didn’t feel well – that excited and full of joy was I.”
Life has rarely been easy for Djuljana (27). At the tender age of seven, she was forced to leave her home in Kosovo and, together with her mother and siblings, move to Belgrade as an internally displaced person. Djuljana had never met her father and her mother abandoned her soon after they reached Belgrade, moving on to Bosnia and Herzegovina. So Djuljana spent her childhood first with her grandmother in a collective centre and then in homes and shelters for children without parental care in Belgrade.
Leaving the shelter when she turned 18, Djuljana moved to Montenegro, where her grandmother and uncle lived at the time. Not finding the stability or home she had hoped for there, she moved again, this time to Germany, where her relatives arranged a marriage for her to a person she had never met before. However, as soon as she arrived, Djuljana refused this arrangement and contacted the police instead. Shortly afterwards, she was returned to Kosovo from where she came back to Belgrade.
To make matters worse, Djuljana never possessed a single personal document which would prove her identity and enable her to enjoy basic human rights – she had never been registered in the birth registry and so neither had access to education, health care, social welfare nor formal employment. In other words, Djuljana was “invisible” and at risk of becoming stateless.
Help out of this difficult situation only arrived when Djuljana contacted Praxis, an NGO providing free legal aid under the UNHCR project to end statelessness in Serbia (implemented since the early 2000). Praxis obtained documentary evidence and initiated court procedures to establish Djuljana’s date and place of birth. Thanks to that, she obtained a birth certificate in 2017 for the first time in her life. However, since she did not possess any evidence of her parents’ citizenship, the UN Refugee Agency also needed to support Djuljana in initiating a special procedure to confirm her Serbian citizenship. Finally, Djuljana obtained an ID card in late 2018.
Today, Djuljana has a health booklet, plans to get a passport, and holds a job she is most proud of as an assistant chef in a restaurant.
Djuljana vividly recounts problems common to stateless or other undocumented persons:
“When I got ill or needed a medical check, I always had to pay for it. Sometimes I would get ill and not go to the doctors at all, because I did not have any money. I had never even tried to obtain social assistance, because I knew it was impossible without documents. I was even afraid of going out for fear of being stopped by the police and not being able to show them my documents. I was worried that I might have an accident, and no one would know who I was. Life is very difficult without documents”.
Now, with documents and confirmed citizenship, Djuljana can look up to the future with optimism: “I hope to keep my present job and, when I get my passport, I plan to go to Bosnia to try to find my mother. In any case, I will guard my documents like the apple of my eye!”
Problems related to the lack of personal documents in Serbia mainly affect persons from the Romani minority – one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Serbian society. Seven years ago Serbia made significant progress in respecting the universal right to birth registration, after sustained UNHCR advocacy and support. Nada Šoškić, Senior Legal Advisor of Praxis, explains: “Many people could not get registered in birth registries; many had attempted to do so, albeit unsuccessfully. We estimated that more than 20,000 Roma had this problem. An important breakthrough was made in 2012 when a separate court procedure for determination of the date and place of birth was introduced into the Serbian legal system, intended for persons who are not registered in the birth registry and who cannot get registered through an administrative procedure. If it hadn’t been for this procedure, Djuljana would not have been able to get registered. In addition, legal regulations governing registration of permanent residence were amended almost at the same time, thus enabling the residents of informal settlements to register permanent residence and obtain ID cards. The cooperation established between competent Government ministries, the Protector of Citizens, the UN Refugee Agency, and Praxis was also very important as we all worked together on resolving the problems of legally invisible persons.”
Although the number of the undocumented has thus been reduced to some 2,000, some problems persist.
Says Nada Šoškić “Children whose mothers lack documents cannot get registered in birth registries immediately after birth, which is contrary to international law and the Serbian Constitution. In order to solve this problem, bylaws preventing birth registration in such cases must be amended. It is also necessary that the authorities deciding in birth registration procedures and procedures for citizenship acquisition proceed in a lawful manner and embrace consistent practices.”
In light of the progress the country has already made in preventing statelessness, once the Government and authorities take these remaining important steps, also Serbia could pride itself for having eradicated statelessness.