UNHCR drives effort to reduce statelessness in south-east Europe

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– A top UNHCR official on Thursday urged countries in south-east Europe to accede to a key UN convention on statelessness and help improve the lives of thousands of ethnic Roma.

“We encourage the governments in the region to take that step now and ratify the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness,” Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Janet Lim said before addressing a government officials and aid workers at a conference in Zagreb on civil documentation and birth registration.

“Thousands of people are watching us today, hoping that your decisions will allow them to enjoy their most basic rights such as legal protection or the right to participate in the in the political processes,” Lim told some 80 participants at the meeting. “They hope for easier access to health care and education, better employment opportunities, less travel restrictions, more social inclusion and reduced risk of vulnerability of trafficking, harassment and violence,” she added.

Lim noted that two countries in the region had acceded to the 1961 Convention, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, which became the 40th state party to the legislation at the annual UN General Assembly session in New York in September. UNHCR in August launched a major campaign to encourage more countries to accede to the Convention during its 50th anniversary.

The 1961 Convention provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness. UNHCR, in addition to its refugee mandate, has been tasked with identifying, preventing and reducing the incidence of statelessness.

The plight of up to 12 million stateless people around the world has received limited attention in recent years. Europe is home to almost 600,000 of them – largely a legacy of the break-up of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia two decades ago.

Many are Roma from south-east European countries that were created from the former Yugoslavia. Some have moved to other parts of Europe, where they can have problems proving their nationality and legal right to remain.

UNHCR estimates that in south-east Europe itself, more than 18,000 people are stateless or at risk of statelessness. However, there is no reliable data on the size of the Roma population affected by statelessness.

Roma primarily face statelessness due to lack of birth registration and documentation, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. These are the basic proofs of citizenship without which a person can be at risk of statelessness.

Because of their marginalization and discriminatory practices in the registration process that can lead to mistrust, Roma are often not fully aware of the importance of civil registration and documentation to access basic civil, political, social and economic rights and public services. Many children are not registered at birth, placing them at risk of becoming stateless.

Lim also stressed the humanitarian character and focus of the meeting and invited all governments in the region to “include in the national legislation and implement both the 1954 [Convention relating to the Status of Refugees] and 1961 Convention” before the end of this year.

A ministerial-level conference to be hosted by UNHCR in Geneva in December will include a treaty event for states that wish to deposit their instruments of accession to the UN refugee and/or statelessness conventions.

from UNHCR

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