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The Roma community’s citizenship deficit

On a number of occasions the Future Citizenship Institute has drawn attention to minorities that have a precarious citizenship status or may even be at risk of statelessness. Groups that fall in this category include the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. In Europe, too, such a group can be found, namely the Roma. A report studying the position of Romani people in the Western Balkans and Ukraine has identified three underlying themes that emerged to varying degrees from all the research countries: the systemic discrimination and exclusion of Roma, barriers to accessing justice, and bureaucratic challenges presented by complex administrative systems and procedures.

Moreover, it was shown how ‘despite strong international treaty accession records, and reasonably strong domestic legal frameworks, norms and standards are not universally and equally applied to protect Roma from discrimination and statelessness in the research countries’. This confirmed earlier research which stressed that an analysis of legal statelessness protection mechanisms only provides part of the picture as long as the practical implementation of these mechanisms is not properly assessed.

The case of Serbia can serve as an example. Its excellent record based on the analysis of its nationality law at first sight suggests that statelessness is not a problem in the country. But Serbia’s good score should not be interpreted to mean that protection against statelessness is always guaranteed in practice or that stateless persons’ human rights are always fully safeguarded. Thus, Praxis, a Serbia-based NGO, ‘identified the difficulties one can encounter when registering residence in his/her own country [i.e. Serbia] and the way in which the absence of registered permanent residence can deprive Serbian nationals of the rights normally attached to nationality or of the possibility to transfer the nationality to their children. Such consequences almost exclusively arise in cases of Roma from informal settlements, who cannot document ownership or any other legal basis of housing’.

Julija Sardelic, whose research focuses on the Romani’s citizenship status, similarly concludes ‘that many individuals externally categorized as belonging to Romani minorities often faced obstacles, specific to their position, in the access to citizenship in most of the post-Yugoslav states wherein they resided and could not regularize their status as legal aliens with permanent residence. In addition, they often possessed ineffective citizenship of another post-Yugoslav state and were in turn de facto stateless’.

A paper by Maylis de Verneuil not only gives useful insight into the history of the Roma – who never built any homeland nor claimed any territory yet have been living in Europe for centuries – but also summarizes the debate on whether certain (stateless) groups could get access to EU citizenship without necessarily being nationals of a particular EU Member State. While this is currently not a realistic scenario because Article 20(1) Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that ‘citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship’, ideas to sever Member State nationality from EU citizenship can be traced back to shortly after the introduction of EU Citizenship by the Maastricht Treaty. Jacqueline Bhabha, who attributes the Roma’s citizenship deficit to their lack of documentary evidence (e.g. birth certificates or proof of continuous residence), concludes that the Roma are not only often excluded from national and regional (EU) citizenship but also from global citizenship. Arguing that ‘refugee status is a powerful form of surrogate global citizenship’, she shows that certain Roma cannot even attempt to file an asylum claim. For example, ‘Roma asylum applicants from Kosovo are disqualified from access to asylum in the EU because Kosovo is seeking EU Membership’. As a result, Kosovo is under an obligation to receive and reintegrate those of their (Roma) nationals whom EU Member States decide to deport.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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