Personal Documents and Threats to the Exercise of Fundamental Rights among Roma in the former Yugoslavia

04 June 2004

Personal Documents and Threats to the Exercise of Fundamental Rights among Roma in the former Yugoslavia


A serious obstacle to the exercise of basic rights by Roma in the countries of the former Yugoslavia is a lack of basic documents, including but not limited to:

  • Birth certificates;
  • Personal identity documents;
  • Local residence permits;
  • Documents related to (in most cases, state-provided) health insurance, as well as social welfare;
  • Passports.

And, in the most extreme of cases, a lack of citizenship in countries of birth or to which the individual at issue has legitimate ties, in the sense of international laws and standards on citizenship, and in particular citizenship in the context of state succession. In a disturbing number of cases, this has given rise to the anathema phenomenon of statelessness among Roma.

Statelessness: Statelessness in the context of state succession is a problem of dramatic proportions for Roma living in a number of successor states to the former Central European federations (Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). Following the changes of 1989, significant numbers of Roma have been rendered stateless in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia; the problem may also exist in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, although to date adequate documentation on this issue is lacking.

Due to significant international pressure, in 1999, the Czech Republic amended the 1992 law which had, following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, rendered tens of thousands of Roma stateless. The victory is one of the major Roma Rights successes of the 1990s. It was made possible due to long-term efforts by non-governmental organisations, notably the European Roma Rights Center and the Tolerance Foundation, the UNHCR, the Council of Europe, and the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe of the U.S. Department of State.

There are good reasons to act now to change the situation in the ex-Yugoslav states where Romani statelessness is also a problem:

  • Statelessness is an emotive human rights issue. In her immensely influential The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt persuasively argued a link between statelessness and the atrocities carried out by the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the 20th century.
  • Statelessness effectively precludes many Roma from having access to adequate housing, public health services, schooling and social support. Resolution of the statelessness issues facing Roma via legal change, government amnesties or other mechanisms, can have a real, tangible, immediate positive effect on the lives of large numbers of Roma.
  • To date efforts in Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia have been too weak to bring about real change. Given the similarities between the human rights issues raised by Romani statelessness in the Czech Republic and those in the ex-Yugoslav Republics, there are significant lessons to be drawn from the Czech experience and important skills to be transferred.
  • The fact that much statelessness is caused by bad laws offers visible targets to advocates, targets often not available in other areas: organizing advocates is facilitated by the clarity and simplicity of the issue.
  • The ERRC has a significant role to play in promoting signature and ratification by all ex-Yugoslav states of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
  • There are indications that intergovernmental organizations including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe are increasingly interested in action on this issue and in these countries. The prospect of allying with powerful friends heightens the chances for a substantive victory.
  • In at least one of the countries ? Macedonia ? a significant and developed Romani NGO sector exists. This has been primarily preoccupied to date with distributing humanitarian aid to Romani refugees, but there have been indications of a willingness by some Romani organisations and activists to engage in serious human rights activities to lobby for change. Other ex-Yugoslav countries, for example Bosnia, have new mechanisms for facilitating cooperation between Romani NGOs and the government.
    In short, the ERRC has a clear a combination of (i) serious human rights concern (ii) advocacy target (citizenship laws), (iii) potential allies and (iv) concrete ERRC experience to offer, i.e., all the basic ingredients for a good campaign. Further, the universality of problems related to statelessness and other documents suggests that this is a good issue on which to bring together Roma from around the former Yugoslavia, many of whom have had serious difficulties in meeting to discuss issues since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Many Romani activists have responded very positively to the idea of ERRC action in this area and of this kind.

Personal Documents and Threats to the Exercise of Basic Rights

Even in former Yugoslav countries where statelessness has not been reported as a problem of serious proportions (such as Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), as well as in those countries where statelessness among Roma has been reported, Roma reportedly face a range of problems in relation to the access to other documents, such as birth certificates, identity cards and other documents important for realizing basic rights such as housing, health, education, social benefits, etc. Exclusionary obstacles created by a lack of documents can be daunting and in many instances, the lack of one document can lead to a "chain reaction", in which the individual at issue is unable to secure any such documents. In the extreme case, a Romani child without a birth certificate may wind up in a situation of complete paralysis with respect to the exercise of basic rights: precluded access to basic health care, effectively hindered freedom of movement (including the right to leave one's own country), denial of the right to vote, exclusion from state housing provided to persons from socially weak groups, as well as the inability to have real access to other rights and services crucial for basic human dignity. Individuals may also be unable to claim other permits, such as drivers' licenses. This problem has only been vaguely sketched (primarily by some non-governmental organisations), and has not been addressed in any systematic way by authorities in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Here ERRC has a key role to play in shedding light on as yet obscured issue, as well as in bringing pressure on governments to adopt programs to overcome a lack of basic documents among Roma.


The goals of the project are:

  • To invigorate and inform debate in the countries of former Yugoslavia, with the aim of bringing an end to Romani statelessness in countries where it exists. All Roma who can demonstrate real and effective ties to the country in which they live, including but not limited to those Roma with legal residence in that country, should be provided with citizenship in that country upon request.
  • To ensure that just compensation be provided to Roma made stateless as a result of laws on citizenship adopted by successor states to the former Yugoslavia.
  • To raise awareness of, improve documentation about, and discuss action in relation to problems of Roma in securing other important documents such as birth certificates, identity cards, etc. Potential aims of action could involve recommendations for government action to resolve the problem of Roma without documents.
  • To facilitate organisation of Roma rights activists around a series of issues on which many can agree, even in as devisive and troubled a terrain as Balkan Romani politics.


The ERRC works in cooperation on the project with the following two formal partners:

  • The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Republika Srpska (Bijeljina, Bosnia and Hercegovina)
  • The Association of Roma Rights Protection (Stip, Macedonia)


Phase 1: Workshop

Phase 2: Action Phase

  • Documenting numbers of stateless Roma in individual localities, as well as details of individual cases; assembly in a central database located at a NGO and European Roma Rights Center
  • Lobbying individual lawmakers for legislative changes/amnesties required to reduce statelessness, as well as policy initiatives to improve access of Roma to basic documents
  • Information campaign in and mobilization of Romani communities
  • Legal and non-violent direct action activities

Phase 3: Assessment and Follow-Up Workshop, in May or July 2003
Location: Another Former Yugoslav country


  • One calendar year after the initial workshop, a follow-up workshop will be held to assess successes and failures of the campaign to date and plan follow-up activity.
  • Finalization of project documents for publication.
    The project enjoys the generous support of the Human Rights Project Fund of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom.

See various publications at:

See for example, Mekina, Igor, "Slovenia From Within: Bureaucratic Ethnic Cleansing", AIM Ljubljana, December 23, 2000, and Peri?, Tatjana, "Insufficient: Governmental programmes for Roma in Slovenia," on the Internet at:

See especially Danova, Savelina and Rumyan Russinov, "Field Report: ERRC in Croatia" on the Internet at:  here.

See ERRC Country Report A Pleasant Fiction: The Human Rights Situation of Roma in Macedonia, on the Internet: here.

To date, none of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia have signed the Convention.

A frequently reported scenario is as follows: A Romani couple from a traditional marriage does not register a marriage or any children to which they have given birth because the bride is underage and the husband therefore risks being charged with statutory rape. When the couple is of age, they attempt to register the marriage and the child, but encounter serious bureaucratic obstacles because the child may be up to five years old by this time and, for example, in Macedonia, procedures for obtaining birth certificates for children not registered with authorities immediately after birth frequently involve the courts. A child unable to secure a birth certificate may be excluded from registering in school, may be excluded from any basic health care, may not qualify as a child for the purposes of public social support, etc.

Croatia, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Slovenia are all states parties to the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons which states, inter alia, "The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of stateless persons. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings." (Article 32).


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