Statelessness: Citizenship hopes draw closer for Roma asylum-seeker

News Stories, 5 December 2011

© UNHCR/M.Jasarevic
A UNHCR protection officer greets a young Roma friend at a settlement in Sarajevo.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina, November 30 (UNHCR) Muqishta Nuqi has long felt like the odd one out in his family. For years, the ethnic Roma has lacked a nationality and lived under the threat of being expelled from Bosnia and Herzegovina, his home for almost two decades.

But the asylum-seeker has never given up in his determination to become a Bosnian citizen, like his parents and siblings, and his persistence is paying off. After consistent efforts by Nuqi and UNHCR, the Bosnian government recently granted temporary residence to the 35-year-old and his children, based on his ownership of property in Sarajevo.

This means he can legally reside in the country, but must reapply every year for temporary residence, which does not entitle him to basic rights such as health care and financial support. After three years he can apply for Bosnian citizenship and all the many rights that go with it.

Nuqi's success is an exception, but Bosnia's Citizenship Law is under review and UNHCR hopes that hundreds of other vulnerable families could soon reap the benefits and be granted citizenship of the country, which was torn by conflict in the 1990s amid the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

His family hailed from Djakova in western Kosovo, but they moved to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when he was a child. He had a happy upbringing in the hill-circled city, though he was never registered as a resident like other members of his family.

In 1992, all-out conflict returned to the Balkans for the first time since World War II and Nuqi fled to Kosovo with his mother and several siblings. The rest of his family remained in Sarajevo, where Nuqi's uncle was killed in the fighting.

But a few years later Kosovo was also embroiled in violence and persecution, which only ended with the March-June 1999 NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) bombing campaign against Yugoslav government targets. Forced by paramilitary fighters to leave their home, Nuqi and his family headed back to Bosnia, where he was granted temporary admission status, like other Roma fleeing from Kosovo. It gave them access to aid, shelter, education and health care.

He moved to join his family in a Roma settlement in Sarajevo, where he has lived ever since and invested in property. He earns a good living from collecting and selling waste material.

But uncertainty returned to Nuqi's life in 2007, when he faced being sent back to Kosovo his last place of registered residence and separation from his family, after the government revoked his temporary admission status. In 2009, he applied for asylum, but this was rejected and he filed an appeal with the help of UNHCR.

"I have no one in Kosovo. My parents, siblings and relatives are all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Six of my [nine] children were born here, they go to school here. I built my house with my own hands and have always abided by the law," Nuqi told UNHCR. "All I have ever wanted was to be recognized as a citizen of this country," he added.

He faced an uphill battle challenging the government's ruling because, like other Roma in a similiar situation, he was not a resident of a reception centre for asylum-seekers and thus ineligible for legal or financial support from the government. Moreover, he was also legally barred from employment, though this was essential to support his family.

But Nuqi was determined and, even though illiterate and unable to read them, he spent time, effort and money on collecting and filing documents to back his case to remain in Bosnia and gain citizenship and to show that he was a good, law-abiding member of society who deserved this recognition.

He was supported in his efforts by UNHCR and the Council of Europe, whose Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg met Muqishta a year ago and called on the Bosnian government to do more to find durable solutions for the forcibly displaced, including local integration.

"Particular attention should be paid to Roma who have been forcibly displaced from Kosovo and have lived, for many years, with their families in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Return is not a real option for these people. They are still in need of international protection," the Swedish humanitarian said.

The signs for change are good. In Belgrade earlier this month, the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia gave their firm support to a work plan setting out concrete steps for removing all obstacles to a durable solution for the remaining refugees from the Balkans conflict of 1991-1995. These include the accelerated provision of civil documentation allowing people to enjoy their rights and resume normal lives.

In Bosnia, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has started drafting proposed amendments to the Citizenship Law, which will make it easier for refugees and the stateless to get nationality.

Naveed Hussain, UNHCR's former representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said he was optimistic that the law would help to improve the lives of many who face renewed displacement despite having long-term residence and strong family ties to Bosnia . "Mr Nuqi and people in his position should be able to become Bosnian citizens and stay here permanently," he stressed.

By Eoin Ansbro and Miradije Hodža in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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