A Step in the Right Direction: Accessing Personal Documents in Montenegro
Narrative project report of the non-governmental organisation Humanitarac1
Iin the aftermath of the conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, many citizens of the newly formed countries on the territory have been found to be lacking one or more or, in extreme cases, any form of valid personal identification documents, effectively rendering a great number of people stateless. In an effort to remedy a lack of documentation in this area and take steps towards the acquisition of missing personal documents by Roma on the territory of Montenegro, the Nikšić-based non-governmental organisation Humanitarac initiated a project within the framework of the European Roma Rights Center's action "Personal Documents and Threats to the Exercise of Fundamental Rights among Roma in the Former Yugoslavia".
Under the project, Humanitarac committed to undertake the following activities:
- Conduct detailed research into the personal document situation of Roma in three settlements in the town of Nikšić: Brlja, Pod Trebjesom and Zeljezara 2. Significant numbers of Roma live in each of the target communities; and
- Assist twenty-five Roma in acquiring missing personal documents.
During the period February 5, 2003 through May 15, 2003, Humanitarac carried out the proposed project activities in partnership with the Nikšić-based Romani organisations Beginning and Budo Tomovic.
During the course of research, the research team, which consisted of one representative of Humanitarac and one representative of Beginning, found one hundred and nine local Romani families, comprising five hundred and thirty-nine people, to be living in Nikšić. Additionally, one hundred and sixty-six Romani families internally displaced from Kosovo, comprising seven hundred and thirty-eight people, were also recorded in Nikšić. In Nikšić, the majority of Roma were found to live in six settlements (Brlja, Budo Tomovic, Pod Trebjesom and Zeljezara 1, Zeljezara 2 and Zeljezara 3), while a few Romani families lived scattered throughout the city.
Three settlements in which significant numbers of Roma live were chosen to be the focal point of the research: Brlja, Pod Trebjesom and Zeljezara 2. The research team surveyed one hundred and sixty-eight Romani families from these settlements, comprising approximately seven hundred and fifty people, including three hundred and fifty children, with respect to access to personal documents, including personal identification cards, passports and health cards. Both local Roma and internally displaced Roma from Kosovo were surveyed. On the basis of the surveys, it was found that:
- Twenty-seven persons, or 3.6 percent of the survey group, lacked birth certificates;
- Forty-seven persons, or 6.2 percent of the survey group, lacked citizenship certificates;
- Forty-nine persons, or 6.5 percent of the survey group, lacked personal identification cards; and
- One hundred and sixty-three persons, or 21.7 percent of the survey group, lacked health cards.
Through dialogue with the surveyed Roma, Humanitarac discovered a myriad of obstacles encountered by Roma in Nikšić in accessing personal documents. Illiteracy, as reported by 38 percent of the surveyed Roma, was the most commonly cited obstacle. In the words of Ms Salja Rahima, "I am illiterate so how can I read what is required to get my documents and fill out the necessary forms?" Financial impediments, as reported by 29 percent of the surveyed Roma, was the second largest barrier to acquiring personal documents. Mr Sikeljzen Malici asked the research team how he could possibly pay the costs of acquiring his personal documents when he could not even buy bread for his children to eat. Twenty-one percent of the surveyed Roma listed the difficulty of replacing documents originally issued in Kosovo but necessary for the acquisition of personal documents in Montenegro as their primary encumbrance; 9 percent cited the complicated nature of the official procedure, while 3 percent reported that they simply did not have the will to go through the procedure.
Romani Children Registered
Nineteen Romani children were entered, or began the procedure to be, in the Birth Register and to obtain birth certificates. Humanitarac considered the health status and level of poverty of Romani children without documents in Nikšić in deciding which children to assist in acquiring personal documents. For example, 6-month-old Drasko Hajrusi, who suffered from a serious undiagnosed medical condition, was not eligible for state-sponsored medical care due to a lack of documents, therefore, Humanitarac considered his case a priority. While in the course of trying to register Drasko, his medical condition deteriorated drastically, so Humanitarac negotiated his access to medical treatment with a local hospital. Despite Humanitarac's efforts, little Drasko passed away as a result of his medical condition on March 17, 2003.
As the project came to a close, the registration procedure for seven Romani children - Rachela-Madijana Gasi, Valerija Gasi, Denis Gasi, Besim Gasi, Boris Hajrusi, Mira Hajrusi and Drasko Hajrusi (who subsequently died on March 17, 2003, and was issued a death certificate through the efforts of Humanitarac) - had been completed. All seven children were subsequently issued birth certificates. In addition, the necessary documents had been submitted to the Birth Registry Office on behalf of twelve additional Romani children - Vebija Hajrusi, Faruk Hajrusi, Mia Hajrusi, Ratko Hajrusi, Buri Keljmendi, Leonora Keljmendi, Deli Keljmendi, Besad Keljmendi, Djuljsa Keljmendi, Ilir Ramaj, Linda Ramaj and Merisa Ramaj. As of September 23, 2003, the completion of their registration was expected in the very near future, as was the issuance of their birth certificates.
In addition to the registration of Romani children in the Birth Register, Humanitarac assisted twenty-seven Roma in the procedure for obtaining citizenship. Accordingly, Humanitarac helped the twenty-seven Roma collect the required documentation, including visiting offices in Serbia which now issue replacement documents for people from Kosovo, and paid the fees for several of the Romani beneficiaries. As of the end of the project, fourteen Roma - Alil Berisa, Suzana Hajrusi, Hisen Berisa, Arijeta Krasnici, Skeljzen Krasnici, Ismet Beganaj, Hamdija Beganaj, Sevdija Beganaj, Veselj Beganaj, Bukurija Beganaj, Naser Beganaj, Buba Beganaj, Sokolj Beganaj and Kumrija Beganaj - were enrolled in the Citizenship Register. All required documentation had also been submitted to the Nikšić Office on the Ministry of the Interior on behalf of an additional thirteen Roma - Afrim Salja, Amida Salja, Speljben Salja, Linda Salja, Miranda Delija, Perparim Salja, Jelena Salja, Klementina Salja, Hamida Salja, Dafina Salja, Rachela-Madijana Gasi, Denis Gasi and Besim Gasi. As of September 23, 2003, the successful completion of these applications was expected in the very near future.
Understanding that knowledge is key to the full realisation of human rights, Humanitarac set awareness-raising as one of the principle project activities. To this end, Humanitarac representatives appeared twice on TV Nikšić, once on TV MBC, once on Radio Nikšić, once on Radio Montena and once on the morning programme of Radio Montenegro. The widespread support of local media afforded Humanitarac an opportunity to publicise the project, in turn increasing their opportunity to reach Roma living in the broadcast area. Humanitarac used the television and radio spots to communicate the importance of possessing full personal documentation, as well as to inform viewers/listeners about the application procedures. Humanitarac believes that the media coverage will help to remedy the lack of procedural knowledge put forth by many of the surveyed Roma. Humanitarac also used the ample media coverage to encourage all affected Roma to initiate procedures for obtaining their personal documents.
While conducting the surveys on which the statistical data regarding access to personal documents among Roma in Nikšić is based, Humanitarac informed Romani participants about the official procedures with respect to acquiring full documentation. Most importantly, Romani beneficiaries of the project were active participants in the process of acquiring their personal documents, thereby granting them valuable first-hand procedural experience which, it is hoped, will be passed on to family and community members.
Aside from the registration of nineteen Romani children in the Birth Register and twenty-seven Roma in the Citizenship Register, a positive development noted by Humanitarac at the close of the project was the willingness to co-operate exhibited by Nikšić authorities. Particularly, Humanitarac reported that staff of both the Nikšić Birth Registry Office and the Nikšić Office on the Ministry of the Interior were very helpful to illiterate Romani participants in the project and worked with great speed in processing their applications. This development is especially welcome in light of an earlier incident in September 2002 in which staff members of the Nikšić Municipal Registration Office expelled fifty-three Roma attempting to apply for citizenship and subjected them to degrading treatment (for further information on this incident, see the ERRC's Internet website at: Roma Face Difficulties in Obtaining Citizenship in Serbia and Montenegro).
It can be gleaned that the dissemination of procedural knowledge throughout the Nikšić Romani community can only have a positive impact on the personal document situation of Roma in the community which, hopefully, will have a ripple effect and spread to the surrounding area. The involvement of grassroots Romani organisations in the implementation of the project further capacitates local Roma to address documents problems on their own. These positive indicators, combined with a noted change in attitude amongst local authorities are to be welcomed.
- Humanitarac is a Nikšić-based non-governmental organisation. Humanitarac carried out the project activities on which this report is based. The research was commissioned by the ERRC as a component of a larger project aimed at documenting the obstacles encountered by Roma in the former Yugoslavia in accessing personal documents and the subsequent denial of fundamental rights and freedoms. ERRC Researcher Tara Bedard rendered the Humanitarac report into article form.