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The vulnerability of Roma minorities to statelessness in Europe

10 min read

Europe’s Roma minorities, long victims of discrimination and persecution, are typically the most vulnerable group to statelessness in the region. While there are multiple reasons for this, including state succession and conflicts in nationality law, this is also due to the specific position of the communities themselves: their situation as a minority, marginalized and stigmatized as outsiders for centuries across the continent, continues to influences their treatment today and has contributed to tens of thousands of Roma becoming stateless or at risk of statelessness.

There are different estimates of how many Roma live in Europe, with the number varying between 10 and 12 million in Europe. These figures can only be considered as approximations because many Roma do not identify as such due to fear of discrimination – a fear that is all too often well founded. Roma have historically been subjugated to many forms of abuse and exclusion. Denigrated as ‘gypsies’, Roma communities were frequently considered to be vagrants and outsiders, despite being present in Europe for centuries, and were often not regarded as belonging to any state. Some states even had legal decrees explicitly expelling Roma populations from their territory, such as the 1482 Brandenburg Decree prohibiting Roma from staying anywhere within its territory. Similar decrees were also in place in other regions and on many occasions Roma were forced to move on. Crucially, they were not given rights connected to any particular territory and so in many ways Roma minorities could be considered as having had a proto-stateless position in Europe: they were stateless even before the state in the modern sense existed.

However, there were many examples too in their more recent history where citizenship rights were taken from Roma communities. The most brutal case of such ‘citizenship stripping’ occurred before the Second World War in Nazi Germany. While it is well known that German Jews were stripped of their nationality by the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935, it is less known that the commentary to this Law also included Roma. Significantly, this rendering of Roma as stateless was the overture to the atrocities they suffered during the war, when hundreds of thousands of Roma were murdered in mass killings and in concentration camps in what is known as ‘Porajmos’, meaning ‘the devouring’. The removal of the rights and protections of citizenship played an important role in enabling the abuses that followed.

Many of these problems are still present in contemporary Europe. From pogroms to school segregation, lack of political participation to restricted access to the labour market, the everyday realities for most Roma today in Europe are defined by discrimination. And discrimination is also intertwined with their harsh socio-economic conditions, with one recent study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights finding that some 80 per cent of Roma within the EU are at risk of poverty. Both issues have undermined Roma access to citizenship.

Roma statelessness in the post-socialist context

The difficulties experienced by Roma continue to this day, with new issues arising after the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the fragmentation of a number of European states: the so-called ‘velvet divorce’ of Czechoslovakia and the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia into open conflict. In both cases, it was not simply the case that Roma fell between the cracks of disintegrating state systems. Rather, while other communities were able to broadly navigate the transition and retain their fundamental citizenship rights, entrenched structural discrimination against Roma left many at risk of statelessness up to the present day.

Czech Republic

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, while apparently peaceful, led to the exclusion of some of its former population from the newly founded Czech and Slovak Republics. That was the case for Roma residing in the Czech Republic who previously had Slovak Republican citizenship in the Czechoslovak federation, having been relocated during the socialist era to Czech areas to work in factories. Besides the need for labour, some have argued that a secondary motivation for these resettlements was that Czechoslovak authorities wanted to reduce the concentration of Roma in the Slovak Republic (most Roma on the Czech side were killed during the Second World War). However, with the end of socialism many of these factories were closed down and as a result the relocated Roma were left without their previous employment. Due to the new scarcity of jobs and the reluctance of employers to hire Roma due to widespread stereotypes and indirect discrimination, based on last names and addresses, some of them had to resort to informal economic activities in order to survive. Little did they know that this would put them at risk of becoming stateless.

After the Czechoslovak disintegration, individuals with existing Slovak republican citizenship residing in the new Czech state had to naturalize according to the Czech citizenship law. The law itself seemed to contain neutral conditions for naturalization, yet they led to up to 25,000 Roma becoming stateless. Despite the fact that many of these Roma individuals had never lived in Slovakia, their parents having been relocated from Slovak areas before they were even born, their residency was not formally registered in the Czech Republic – a key requirement, following the breakup of Czechoslovakia, of Czech citizenship. In addition, some had criminal records (usually due to petty crimes related to poverty and the rise of unemployment) and this also impeded their access to citizenship, despite the fact that most non-Roma who had been born into Czech citizenship and who had criminal records did not experience any major consequences. However, for many Roma individuals, the consequences were disproportionate: because of a minor criminal infraction, they found themselves deprived of all their citizenship rights.

Due to pressure the civil society activists, the Czech Law on Citizenship was later amended. Yet it remains a very indicative example of how state succession and complex nationality laws can create conditions whereby certain communities, if there is an established pattern of discrimination against them, are excluded as citizens from their own countries through bureaucratic hurdles. While the legal obstacles have now been removed, the question still remains as to why many Roma still face an uncertain status. It is unclear whether the remaining Roma have been registered and how many still remain in a legal limbo. Yet the outcomes of statelessness have had lasting effects on the ability of thousands of Roma to secure adequate employment and education, further entrenching a cycle of poverty and discrimination in the Czech Republic.

Former Yugoslavia

For Roma minorities who were previously citizens of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) but later on became stateless or at risk of statelessness, the situation is even more complex. Besides the challenges of state disintegration and indirect discrimination, many Roma were also directly affected by the violent conflicts that accompanied its break up, forcing them into internal displacement or to leave the country as refugees. The estimates of how many of the approximately 1 million Roma who were formerly Yugoslav citizens, are at risk of statelessness are very unreliable. The Council of Europe estimated that more than 30,000 Roma were stateless, primarily in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Montenegro. Others claim that these estimates are very conservative and put the total number of stateless Roma living in Southeast Europe at much higher. Even these figures, however, are questionable as some Roma assume the identity of a more dominant ethnic group to avoid discrimination.

While Roma were not directly involved in the conflict and were not perceived as threatening as they did not have any independent territorial claims, they were nevertheless disproportionally affected when it came to access to citizenship in the newly established states. As in the case of the former Czechoslovakia, the citizenship laws of all newly established post-Yugoslav states (with the exception of Kosovo) were based on the legal continuation of previous republican citizenship. But Roma who were forcedly displaced during the conflict or had previously migrated from one Yugoslav Republic to another (for example, because of employment) came up against substantial difficulties, both in proving their previous citizenship and also in accessing that of the country in which they resided.

More than two decades on, Roma are still living with the consequences of this apparent anomaly. In Serbia, many displaced due to the conflict in Kosovo remain not only internally displaced but also legally invisible, without any identity documents. Although they have a right to access Serbian citizenship, without the necessary paper this can be difficult to prove, particularly as registers were frequently destroyed in the conflict. Roma forced to flee to Montenegro from Kosovo found themselves in an even more complicated predicament. Back in the 1990s, when they left their homes in Kosovo, they were not crossing any internationally recognized border. In the meantime, however, three new countries have been formed: Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo respectively. As Montenegro does not allow dual citizenship, Roma refugees living there find themselves in a quandary. To naturalize as Montenegrins, they must renounce their Serbian citizenship – and yet even this can be difficult to prove in the first place due to the destruction of official records and the fact that large numbers of Roma have lived in informal settlements, as well as the lack of recognition from Serbia itself of its Roma as citizens.

The citizenship acts in the newly established states also created difficulties for Roma who wished to naturalize. For example, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Roma migrants who came from Kosovo (either as refugees or work migrants) had to prove 15 years of residency in order to gain citizenship – something that many Roma, having spent much of their time in the country in informal settlements without a formal proof of address, struggle to achieve. In Croatia, on the other hand, the citizenship act had a requirement that applicants proved their proficiency in Latin script to secure naturalization. While this provision did not appear to target Roma directly those who primarily used Cyrillic script, in reality many Roma – having experienced a discriminatory educational system of segregated schooling in Croatia that led to their illiteracy – could not prove their proficiency in Latin script.

Another hurdle to accessing citizenship is financial, often in large part because the destitution arising from their situation leaves stateless Roma unable to meet the administrative and legal costs of applying for citizenship, nor provide the necessary proof of income required for naturalization. In Slovenia, for example, some Roma have fallen into the group of the ‘erased’ – members of other Yugoslav republics resident in Slovenia when it achieved independence in 1991 who failed to secure citizenship and subsequently found themselves removed from the national registry, an administrative procedure that left many marginalized individuals without permanent residence permits, pushing some as a result into statelessness. Though the European Court of Human Rights determined that the human rights of the erased in Slovenia have been violated, in certain case their discrimination persists to this day. Unable for years to access employment and education, many Roma who were erased still cannot access formal employment and therefore are unable to fulfil the requirement of the Slovenian citizenship act to prove they have sufficient funds to guarantee their material and social security.

The implications of Roma left at risk of statelessness in the former Yugoslav states are far-reaching: not only have they been deprived of their civic rights, but they have also been unable to access education, employment or health care due to their lack of a birth certificate, lawful residence, and other identification documents. These shortfalls have created new patterns of discrimination as a result, and two decades after the end of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia there are still thousands of Roma who remain at risk of statelessness.

The predicament of statelessness that Roma face is often perpetuated in a vicious intergenerational cycle. A persistent challenge that contributes to child statelessness is the onerous registration requirements: in order to register the birth of a Roma child in different post-Yugoslav states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia) and prove their citizenship, sometime birth registration documents not only of parents but even of grandparents is needed. This affects Roma children whose parents fled the Yugoslav conflicts not only in the post-Yugoslav nations themselves, but also in states such as Italy, where there are approximately 15,000 Roma children who despite being born in the country are stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Imagining a future without Roma statelessness

The predicament of the thousands of stateless Roma in Europe is rooted not only in the post-socialist context of state disintegration and changing citizenship laws, but also the fundamental issue of discrimination against the community. Addressing this issue is central to ending statelessness among Europe’s Roma. While they continue to face the constant threat of evictions, detention and exclusion from essential services such as education, the conditions for potential statelessness will remain in place. Broader changes within Europe, from the uncertain fallout of the Brexit vote to increasingly vocal calls for further referendums on the independence of Scotland, Catalonia and elsewhere, may create new challenges. The new citizenship regimes that may emerge from these developments will need to take special care not to exclude marginalized and stigmatized populations from their citizenry, including Roma.

Julija Sardelić

Photo: Roma children in Montenegro. Credit: Roberto Maldeno.