UNHCR urges Slovenia to resolve the problem of its "erased cases"
LUBLJANA, Slovenia, February 26 (UNHCR) - Today is a black one for almost 4,000 people in Slovenia. Exactly 15 years ago, they were deprived of their legal residency status and the benefits that came with it, including facilitated access to nationality, housing, employment, health insurance, pensions and access to higher education.
For many years, UNHCR has been urging the Slovenian government to find a solution for this group - the so-called "erased cases," many of whom are stateless - in line with previous rulings by the Constitutional Court. "Whenever state borders are changed, there are individuals who end up on the wrong side with the wrong kind of documents," noted Lloyd Dakin, UNHCR's regional representative in Budapest.
Their problems began after Slovenia left the Yugoslav federation in 1991 and declared independence. The new government granted citizenship to more than 170,000 residents who were citizens of other Yugoslav republics. But some 30,000 people living in Slovenia and originating from other parts of Yugoslavia were removed from the new country's registry of residents on February 26, 1992.
Neza Kogovsek, a leading researcher on Slovenia's erased cases, said there had been a short window of opportunity when non-Slovenian residents could apply for citizenship.
"But this was not publicly announced, nor were the concerned persons warned of the consequences," added the human rights lawyer, who works for the Peace Institute in Lubljana. The authorities say they have always acted properly.
Some 12,000 people left immediately, while the rest chose to stay and contest their sudden new status as illegal immigrants. About 14,000 managed to regularise their status, following a number of Constitutional Court decisions, but some 4,000 cases remain unresolved.
In 1992, all of these individuals held the citizenship of other Yugoslav republics and were not formally stateless. But with the passage of time, many have found it increasingly difficult to maintain ties, including formal nationality, with other countries that emerged after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
At the same time, they have shown a clear attachment to Slovenia by their long stay there under difficult conditions and despite the severe social consequences of not having legal residency status.
It is these cases that UNHCR is urging the government to resolve. "In Slovenia, the problem is faced by a rather small group. There are less than 4,000, they speak Slovene, they have professional qualifications. Many of them grew up in Slovenia," Dakin said, adding: "With sufficient political will, the whole issue could be resolved quickly."
Lawyer Matevz Krivic, who has represented several of the erased cases in court, said their exact numbers are not known. He noted that aside from those who had left the country, others had died and some had even committed suicide. Krivic said many of the erased cases hold no identity papers. Some were effectively stateless, while others held papers of a country they had never lived in.
Their plight has attracted media coverage in the run up to the 15th anniversary of their changed status. The public perception of the erased cases is generally negative - they are often portrayed as intruders. Most keep a low profile, with only a handful ready to fight for their rights in the courts or public forums.
The press have been reporting on the suffering of the erased cases, but much of the recent media interest has focused on the case of Alija Berisha and his high-profile fight - with the help of lawyer Krivic - to win legal residency status.
Alija Berisha was born in the Serbian province of Kosovo but has lived in Slovenia since he was a teenager. But his name was taken off Slovenia's residency register in 1992 and he was detained after a visit to Germany in 1993 and deported to Albania. He returned to Slovenia but was recently sent back to Germany with his wife and five small children. UNHCR has raised his case with the authorities on many occasions.
In another recent media article, a women's magazine ran a story about Dragica Lukic, a Bosnian woman who has lived in Slovenia for 22 years but has no access to social welfare benefits because her name was among those erased from the residents' register. One of her two daughters has a mental disability, but Lukic has to pay for all her medical costs and bring up the girls in a humid, mouldy apartment because she cannot get housing help.
Krivic knows of other tragic stories and cited the case of a man of Serbian origin who lived in hiding for many years because he could not regularise his status. In the summer, he would sleep in a friend's garden shed. He became sick, but could not afford to see a doctor. A Slovenian woman finally paid for the man to go to hospital - he was diagnosed with cancer and died only a few days later.
By Melita H. Sunjic in Lubljana, Slovenia