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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Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Civil Registration and the Prevention of Statelessness: A Survey of Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians (RAE) in Montenegro

Results of a study carried out in 2008 by UNHCR, with support from the European Commission and UNICEF, May 2009.

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

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