Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Opinion

Roma statelessness in Europe is not an accident

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next year, the United Nations Human Rights Office is encouraging everyone to "stand up for human rights".

In Europe, we are good at spotlighting human rights abuses outside our borders, yet as we approach this year's Human Rights Day on 10 December, we should take a hard look at what is happening inside our borders and acknowledge that for many, these rights remain little more than words on a piece of paper.

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This remains tragically true for my community, the Roma living in Europe. Discriminated against for centuries, our situation has barely improved.

While I have the chance to practice my rights, many Roma are not as fortunate and many continue to be at significant risk of statelessness. This means that they are trapped without any documentation to prove their right to a nationality and therefore often without access to basic rights such as healthcare, housing or education.

At a meeting in the European Parliament on Wednesday (29 November), we, a cross-party group of MEPs, called on our governments and the European Commission to finally focus attention on the problem of statelessness among Roma and to discuss concrete steps to solve it.

This state of affairs has no place in 21st century Europe.

Agreed in December 1948, Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that: "Everyone has the right to a nationality".

Yet living without a nationality and rights is a harsh reality for thousands of Roma in Europe.

Not only do policymakers need to take steps to address this issue in the European Union, but it should also become a priority for the commission and the parliament during EU enlargement negotiations. These can be a powerful leverage to get things moving in the right direction.

Verbal discrimination

One of the challenges when discussing statelessness is that the term itself can unwittingly evoke an image of people who are in some way 'outsiders,' even when the people in question were born and have lived their whole lives in Europe.

Indeed, statelessness is often not an accident, but a logical outcome of discrimination.

MEPs from all parties have shown their support for this view and the need for change by voting to adopt a report that sets out the undeniable link between statelessness and anti-gypsyism: Fundamental rights aspects in Roma integration in the EU: fighting anti-gypsyism.

Statelessness is also a problem many believe Europe solved a long time ago, but, for example, Roma children born in Italy to parents who fled there during the Balkan wars still face the scourge of growing up stateless, even though their families have been living there for decades.

In Romania, around 15,000 Roma are estimated to lack birth certificates, which puts them at risk of statelessness and struggling to obtain identification documents and access basic services.

Accession talks

Outside the EU in the Western Balkans, new research has revealed that complex civil registration procedures hinder access to crucial documents and are a leading cause of statelessness among Roma.

This is something that needs to be addressed before countries are given the green light to join the EU. Indeed we need to make sure that Europe as a whole is working together to end statelessness.

Left stateless, people face numerous difficulties in their daily lives: they lack access to health care, education, employment opportunities, property rights and the ability to move freely across borders.

It may be impossible for them to do many of the things that most of us take for granted - marry, open a bank account or get a driving licence.

The children of stateless parents are left trapped in the same nightmare, which puts up barriers to having a regular childhood and often leads to lower educational achievement and life-long poverty.

Almost 70 years after the UN Declaration on Human Rights was signed, it is not a moment too soon to break this vicious cycle and ensure that Roma enjoy the same rights, hopes and dreams as all other European citizens.

Soraya Post is a Roma activist, MEP, and co-chair of the European Parliament anti-racism and diversity intergroup

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