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Faces of Romani Statelessness in Greece

29 October 2003

Theodoros Alexandridis1

Background

Statelessness is one of the problems afflicting a sizeable segment of the Romani community living in Greece. The fact that the Greek state has, since 1951, ceased including questions concerning mother tongue and religious affiliation in the national censuses has prevented researchers from ascertaining, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, the size of the Romani community living in Greece. As a consequence, it is even more difficult to estimate how many Roma in Greece are currently stateless. Nevertheless, certain studies suggest that this number may run into the several hundreds. According to one such study,2 only 83% of the approximately two thousand Roma who live in the Aghia Sofia settlement in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, have a passport or an ID card. In its "2001 Annual Report", the Greek National Commission for Human Rights refers to a survey undertaken by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in collaboration with the Roma Inter-municipal network, according to which 5.5% of those questioned had not been registered in the Birth Registry.3 Moreover, during recent field research in Greece, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) have met dozens of Romani individuals who lack ID documents. Without citizenship, these Roma are denied access to fundamental human rights. They cannot secure any social benefits, cannot enact any legal transactions and cannot prove their identity. In other words, a stateless person does not exist, from an administrative point of view.

The Greek state tried to tackle the problem of statelessness in 1955 when, by virtue of Legislative Decree 3370/1955,4 the Greek Nationality Code was enacted. According to the Introductory Memorandum to the Code, "?the [then in force provisions on nationality]?are not comprehensive and are so numerous that it is difficult to be sure of the proper interpretation of the nationality provisions currently in force." According to one researcher, some Roma started acquiring the Greek citizenship from this year on. Until then, the only Roma who possessed identity cards were the Muslim Roma of Western Thrace.5

The 1955 legislative decree, however, did not have retroactive effect, thereby leaving a sizeable number of Roma without proper documentation. This necessitated Compulsory Law 481/1968, which extended the Nationality Code's ambit to "those born before the [Nationality] Code's coming into force".6 Problems, however, persisted, and the only identity document many Roma continued to possess was the Identity Document issued by the Aliens Department of the Greek Police, according to which they were "stateless persons of Atsiganiki [Gypsy] descent"; these documents had to be renewed every two years.7

The failure of these measures to resolve the issue of statelessness of Roma prompted the issuing of General Order 212 by the Nationality Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior on October 20, 1978, contained in document Ref. No. 69468. The Order was addressed to all the Prefectures of Greece, informing them of various measures taken in order to implement the governmental decision to "settle, from the point of view of nationality?", stateless Roma. According to the same document, the granting of nationality to Roma presented many difficulties, attributable mainly "to their [the Roma's] unwillingness to cooperate with the competent authorities." The General Order also drew attention to the fact that many Roma, following the coming into force of Legislative Decree 3370/1955 and Compulsory Law 81/1968 should not be considered stateless but rather should be regarded as Greek citizens. The Order provided an example according to which a person born out of wedlock whose mother is Greek should not be considered as stateless but as someone who had acquired Greek nationality at birth by virtue of Article 1(3) of Decree 3370/1955. Article 1(3) of the Decree states, "A person should be considered as having the Greek nationality from his birth [if](c) he was born out of wedlock and his mother is a Greek national". The Order concluded by calling upon the authorities to "demonstrate the necessary interest?" to address the issue of the statelessness among Roma without delay.

Soon, however, the Nationality Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior had to revisit the issue. With its General Order 51, contained in document Ref. No. 16701, dated March 12, 1979, the Nationality Directorate tried to provide guidance to the various prefectures that encountered problems in implementing General Order 212. It was discovered that in many cases, Roma did not have basic documents (such as birth registry certificates) and therefore could not submit them. According to General Order 51, in such cases, the police authority of the area where the Romani individual in question lived was to certify the identity of the person, wherever possible. General Order 51 foresaw two instances in which the issue of nationality would not be addressed by the competent Prefecture but by the Ministry of the Interior, namely when the Romani individual was born outside Greece and when the Romani individual had a religion different from the Eastern Orthodox religion. General Order 51 bore elements of both positive action and negative discrimination with respect to Roma. The Order contained positive action measures because it aimed to solve problems affecting a specific ethnic group, i.e. Roma. On the other hand, the Order discriminated against members belonging to that group on the basis of religion. Whereas Eastern Orthodox Roma had to submit the relevant documents to the competent Prefecture (an easier and speedier process), in the cases of non-Eastern Orthodox Roma, the competent Prefecture had to forward the documents to the Ministry of the Interior for a more time consuming process to be followed.

The reason why many Roma remain stateless today is closely linked with the problems that Roma in Greece have been facing over several decades. In the past, many Romani women tended to give birth "in the countryside" rather than in hospitals or maternity clinics because some of them were afraid to go there and/or adhered to traditional methods of delivery. According to Article 20 of Law 344/1976, a new-born child should be registered with the local birth registry within 10 days of his/her birth. A fine may be levied in cases of late registry. Furthermore, Article 21 stipulates that the father, the doctor, the midwife and the mother (Article 21, para 1(a), 1(b), 1(c) and para 3 respectively) are obliged to declare the birth of the child.

Apart from the obvious dangers that the practice of giving birth outside a maternity hospital posed to both the prospective mother and the child, it also meant that the child's birth would not be registered by the hospital and consequently would not be entered into the right Registry. Illiterate parents often did not know they had to do this, and, therefore, often did not see to it that their offspring were registered within ten days of birth.
Some Muslim Roma appear to have been the unintended victims of political decisions concerning the members of the Muslim (mostly Turkish) minority. According to Article 19 of Legislative Decree 3370/1955, Greek citizens of non-Greek nationality could be stripped of their citizenship if they resettled abroad and showed no intention of coming to Greece. The same applies when a Greek citizen of non-Greek nationality, born outside Greece to a Greek citizen, shows no intention of returning to Greece. In the past, Greek authorities have invoked this provision in order to strip mostly Muslim minority members of their Greek citizenship, many times without even bothering to examine whether the conditions laid down in Article 19 were satisfied. Thus, in many cases, persons were deprived of their Greek citizenship even though they had never been outside Greece. Article 19 was abolished - following intensive international pressure - by parliamentary vote on June 11, 1998. The abolition did not have retroactive effect.

The existence, until 1998, of Article 19 meant that Greece violated relevant provisions contained in a growing number of international instruments. This article is in stark contrast to Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which mandates that a State should not deprive a person of his nationality if this deprivation would render him stateless. Furthermore, pursuant to Article 9 of the same convention, a State may not deprive any person or group of persons of their right to nationality on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds.8 Similarly, the European Convention on Nationality lays down in Article 4(b) the principle that "statelessness shall be avoided".9 It should be noted that although Greece has signed both Conventions, it had not as of July 2003 ratified either of them, despite the abolition of Article 19 which presented the most obvious obstacle to ratifying these two Conventions, running counter as it did to both their spirit and letter.

Cases of statelessness

Greek authorities have in many cases failed to address cases of statelessness, even when the existing legal framework, with all its shortcomings, could have provided a solution. The case of Mr Sezgin Durgut is one in point. Mr. Durgut is a Muslim Romani man, born to a Greek mother and a stateless Romani father. Greek authorities failed to grant him Greek citizenship for thirty years between 1972 and 2002, despite the fact that Mr Durgut's mother is a Greek citizen and consequently, under Article 1(c) of Legislative Decree 3370/1955, as well as Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, he should have been considered a Greek national by the fact of his birth. It is probably on these grounds that his sister received Greek citizenship in 1993. Interestingly too, when Mr Durgut was born, he should have also benefited from General Order 212's special provision for Romani children with a Greek mother born out of wedlock, as when he was born his parents' wedding had not been declared yet.

Condemned to live without any documents, Mr Durgut applied twice for a stateless person's identification document. Nevertheless, the Greek authorities turned down Mr Durgut's two requests, submitted respectively in 1999 and 2000, leaving him without any identity papers until March 2002 when he eventually received his Greek citizenship card. Greek authorities claimed that Mr Durgut was a Bulgarian citizen because his grandfather had moved to Greece from Bulgaria during the Second World War and, hence, that he did not qualify for stateless persons' documents. This was an erroneous view because in 1997, Mr Durgut submitted to Greek authorities a Bulgarian Consulate certificate which certified that he was not a Bulgarian citizen. Furthermore, his grandfather had to obtain a Bulgarian visa in order to travel to Bulgaria in 1979 - a fact which proved that he was not a Bulgarian citizen either.

Mr Durgut's saga finally ended in 2002 when he was granted Greek citizenship under Article 69(6) of Law 2910/2001. According to this article, anyone born before 1984 to a mother who was a Greek citizen at the time of birth automatically becomes a Greek citizen from the day he presents his request to be recognised as such. Although Mr Durgut applied on the very first day the new law came into force, he was not among those who were first granted citizenship according to this law in August 2001. Mr Durgut was only provided with Greek citizenship after repeated urging by, and letters of appeal from, Greek non-governmental organisations and the Greek Ombudsman.

Mr Durgut's case, however, is a rather exceptional one. The vast majority of Romani statelessness cases concern either individuals whose parents are Greek citizens but have failed to declare their birth or individuals who have been registered in an incomplete way. It is to examples of these cases that we will now turn.

Ms Yannoula Tsakiris was born in the early 1980s. Her parents were not officially married and did not declare her birth. Nor did either of them at a later date recognise Ms Tsakiris as their child. When Ms Tsakiris' mother died, her father had already left them. Ms Tsakiris' husband also abandoned her, leaving her to care for their two daughters. The result is that Ms Tsakiris cannot conclusively prove, by virtue of an official document, that she was born to Greek parents.

Greek law provides for an ex parte judicial procedure, whereby the person concerned petitions the court to order her enrollment in the Birth Registry's rolls, so that she can subsequently file an application for an ID card. Nevertheless, such an application is too expensive for the average Romani person.10 In the case of Ms Tsakiris, the ERRC/GHM reached an agreement with the Chairman of the Athens Bar Association (ABA), Mr Dimitrios Paxinos, to the effect that the ERRC/GHM would provide all support needed whereas the ABA would provide legal and financial assistance. The ex parte application was submitted on October 29, 2002. The case was heard by the One Member First Instance Court of Athens on January 27, 2002. During the hearing, the presiding judge expressed doubt about the truthfulness of Ms Tsakiris' statements. This was not without good reason; it should be stressed that Ms Tsakiris' claim was essentially that without any evidence at all, she should be given the Greek citizenship. The ERRC/GHM went on to file with the court a number of documents, including the 2001 Annual Report of the National Commission for Human Rights in which it was acknowledged that the problem of statelessness affected many Roma. It should be noted that, many times in the past, individuals have illegally tried to take advantage of this judicial procedure in order to acquire Greek citizenship. As a result, judges tend to be very apprehensive about such claims.

On March 6, 2003, the Court issued its Decision No. 1578/03, in which it admitted Ms Tsakiris' ex parte application and called upon the Birth Registry to register her. The ERRC/GHM are now in the process of registering Ms Tsakiris and helping her obtain an identity card, as well as the social benefits she is entitled to because she is a single mother. Ms Tsakiris' case sets a precedent which however will not be easy to follow in other cases, as the ABA informed the ERRC/GHM that lack of sufficient funding precludes it from administering such help in other cases in the future.

Finally, reference should be made to those Roma who, due to inaccurate registration (incomplete or containing false data) in the Birth Registry, will face problems in the future. The case of the 39-year-old Ms Eleftheria Georgopoulou is one example. According to the Certificate of Family Status11 issued by the Municipality of Patras on October 29, 2002 (Ref. No 57339), Ms Georgopoulou has nine children, five of which have not been named and have been entered in the Certificate as "unchristened male/female". While in Greece the parents of a child can, when filling out the application to the Birth Registry in order to register their offspring, declare his/her first name, most parents (and many Roma too) prefer to christen their children in church first and then register the child's name with the Birth Registry. Nevertheless, many Roma either fail to find a godmother willing to christen their child (and hence never declare his/her name to the Birth Registry) or when they do christen the child, fail to register his/her name with the Birth Registry. While a parent can at any time decide to give his/her offspring a name by virtue of filling in a simple application, a fine of 16 Euro will be levied for each name assigned to a child but belatedly declared to the authorities.

Late name registration can give rise to serious problems; the mother might not be able to claim certain social security benefits before the registration is completed, while the child will not be able to obtain an identity card in the future if her/his name has not been registered. Individuals in such a predicament, while not in the strict sense stateless, will also face many problems in their everyday lives.

Thankfully, cases like Mr Durgut's or Ms Tsakiris' are today quite rare. Most stateless Roma should be able to prove that they were born to a Greek national and consequently be entitled to Greek citizenship. Yet, it is suggested that Greece ratify without delay the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the European Convention on Nationality. In addition, Greece should seek to identify how many stateless Roma live in Greece. It should then proceed to swiftly grant them Greek citizenship, including the creation of a special fund to meet necessary expenses, thereby putting an end to their statelessness.

The issue of those Roma who are not stateless but experience severe difficulties in their relations with the authorities due to the lack of certain basic documents (such as an identity card or a Certificate of Family Status containing accurate information), will be more difficult to address. In order to counter these difficulties, it is submitted that social workers should visit as many Romani settlements as possible with a view to ascertaining how many Roma face such problems and what measures need be taken in order to address them. Unfortunately, the ERRC/GHM's experience with social workers until now has been rather discouraging. For example, the ERRC/GHM contacted a social worker and asked her to assist Ms Tsakiris in applying for an identity card. The social worker, however, did not consider it her job to "take somebody by the hand" and help them apply for documentation. She stated that she believed her duties included only briefing Ms Tsakiris as to what she should do in order to obtain an ID card. The ERRC/GHM then contacted the Office of the General Secretary for Health, seconded by the Ministry for Health and Welfare, only to receive similar answers. Social workers should be instructed by their superiors to, in fact, take persons who may need assistance "by the hand", if need be, and help them through the bureaucratic maze.

Endnotes:

  1. Theodoros Alexandridis is an ERRC local monitor in Greece and Roma Project Manager at the Athens-based ERRC partner organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor.
  2. Simperasmata tis Meletis gia tous Tsinganous tou Oikismou Aghia Sofia, Ref No. 77, 13/7/2001, p. 1., undated. Submitted by the Vocational Center in Thessaloniki to the Office of the Advisor on Health and Welfare Issues of the Prefect on July 13, 2001.
  3. Divani, Lena. "The situation of Gypsies in Greece". In National Commission for Human Rights. 2001 Annual Report. Athens: National Printhouse, 2002, p. 193.
  4. Official Gazette A 258.
  5. Zenginis, Efstratios. I Musulmani Athinganoi tis Thrakis. Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1994, p. 20. According to the 1951 census, there were 7,249 individuals who habitually employed the Romani language. See Tsitselikis, Konstantinos. To diethnes kai Europaiko kathestos prostasias ton glossikon dikaiomaton ton mionotiton kai i elliniki ennomi taxi. Athens/Komotini: Ant. N. Sakkoulas Publications, 1996, p. 291.
  6. Zenginis, pp. 20-21.
  7. Ibid., p. 20.
  8. See United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Available at: http://www.un.org/law/ilc/texts/statless.htm.
  9. See European Convention on Nationality. Available at: http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/166.htm.
  10. In the case of Ms Tsakiris, for example, a court fee of 278 Euro had to be paid, while the lawyer's additional fee would likely be approximately 300 Euro.
  11. This is a certificate issued by a municipality and which stipulates whether a person and his children (if any) are registered in the municipality's rolls. It also contains information as to their names, dates of birth, marital status, etc.
  12. Thus, the ERRC/GHM provided Ms Georgopoulou, a local volunteer, with 64 Euro in order to cover the late registration expenses (the fifth child's name has not yet been registered). Expenditure of such a sum would represent a serious obstacle for many Roma.

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