Wednesday, August 24, 2011


This story is part of an AlertNet special report on statelessness

By Megan Rowling

LONDON (AlertNet) - European governments should grant citizenship to stateless Roma who have resided in their countries for several years or more, beginning with children who were born there, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights said in an interview.

Thomas Hammarberg said Roma who have no nationality, or lack papers to prove it, are even more vulnerable to the social and economic exclusion that affects the wider Roma community, Europe's largest minority group.

"All Roma in Europe are discriminated against, and the average (Roma) is much behind the average population when it comes to a lot of social indicators – education, employment and housing," the commissioner told AlertNet. Their life expectancy is 10 years lower than other European Union citizens, he added.

"If they are either not registered at all with the authorities or are stateless, they are disabled further," said Hammarberg, who is mandated by the Council of Europe to advocate for human rights in its 47 states. The council promotes rights and democracy within Europe.

Without personal identity documents, stateless Roma may be refused hospital treatment, and in some countries, their children cannot gain entry to schools, Hammarberg said.

The break-up of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993 and the former Yugoslavia in 1995 left some Roma without nationality because the successor states regarded them as belonging elsewhere, and introduced legislation that denied them citizenship.

In other cases, Roma did not register in the newly created countries because they missed deadlines or had fled to other parts of the region.

The Kosovo conflict at the end of the 1990s also drove many to leave without official proof of their nationality, making them de facto stateless.

There are no reliable data on the number of stateless Roma, but Hammarberg estimates they could make up at least 70,000-80,000 of a total Roma population of 11.3 million in Europe. Many live in Italy and southeastern Europe, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Macedonia.

Roma, a widely dispersed group originally from India, are often denied basic human rights and are made victims of flagrant racism.


Often when stateless Roma who have migrated to another country have children, they are not registered at birth despite being entitled to citizenship under international rights agreements.

"I think there are real hidden statistics there," Hammarberg said.

The commissioner said stateless Roma who have settled in a host country for seven to eight years or more should be granted citizenship there, starting with their children.

"I think the new country should recognise them and take responsibility – they have no chance to go back without real problems," he said.

Many of those who fled upheaval in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo have been living in their adopted nations for at least 10 years.

For Roma without proof of identity in their states of origin like Kosovo, where some have tried and failed to obtain copies of lost documents from municipalities, the system should be simplified, Hammarberg said.

It should allow them to declare who they are and their situation, corroborated by two or three witnesses, and then to receive official papers, he proposed.

Few states have taken concrete steps to address the issue. In 1999, the Czech Republic amended a citizenship law that had made tens of thousands of Roma stateless, helping alleviate the problem there.

The commissioner also cautioned politicians against whipping up public enmity towards the Roma - sometimes called gypsies - ahead of elections, as in Italy this May, and making them scapegoats in anti-immigration policies, as in France.

In July 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the dismantling of 300 illegal camps of travellers and Roma across France, and the immediate expulsion of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania who had committed public order offences.

Hammarberg urged European politicians to promote deeper understanding of the Roma plight by explaining their troubled history, but acknowledged this was a challenge in tough economic circumstances.

"It is a very bad time now," he said. "If we could at least ask the politicians not to exploit the latent prejudices against the Roma.”


PHOTO  Roma girl looks out of her home window as members and supporters of the Hungarian radical right-wing party Jobbik march to demonstrate against what they call "gypsy crime" in Hejoszalonta, 170 km (106 miles) east of Budapest, April 2, 2011. REUTERS. Laszlo Balogh

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