STATELESSNESS and REFUGEES in SERBIA
Statelessness is a hidden problem affecting many refugees arriving in Europe. According to Eurostat, of the four million people who applied for asylum in the EU in 2015-2018, more than 115,000 were recorded as ‘stateless’, of ‘unknown nationality’, or their nationality was recorded as ‘Palestine’. Many more come from countries with problematic nationality laws, such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea or Sudan, where gender discrimination or state succession means they or their children are at risk of statelessness. People affected by statelessness face discrimination if reasonable accommodation is not made for their nationality problems in international protection procedures and the provision of essential services. Most countries in Europe are inadequately prepared to respond: only a handful have procedures in place to determine who is stateless on their territory and grant them the specific rights enshrined in international and regional law with respect to the protection of stateless people and the right to a nationality.
What is the refugee context in Serbia?
Serbia is primarily considered a transit country by refugees in Europe. The closure of the Balkan route in 2016 prompted a significant decrease in the number of registrations and asylum applications. Serbian Government data records that in 2015, 579,518 individuals were registered at entry and 586 asylum applications were lodged. In 2017, the numbers dropped to 5,153 registrations and 193 asylum applications. Most applications were suspended as applicants left the country after lodging their application. Among the 5,153 applications in 2017, 2,292 were minors and 850 were women. In 2015 and 2016 too, more than 50% of applicants were women and minors. In 2017, the top recorded countries of origin of asylum applicants were Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Iran. Challenges highlighted by civil society include the lack of consistent recourse to interpreters during registration, the lack of state-funded legal aid, the practice of recording country of origin as country of nationality and the absence of consideration of statelessness issues.
What is the legal situation for stateless people in Serbia?
Serbia is state party to the two UN statelessness conventions (1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and 1961 Convention on Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness), but not to the European Convention on Nationality. It has ratified all other relevant international and regional human rights instruments with no reservations and these have direct effect. Serbia does not have a dedicated statelessness determination procedure or any other mechanism to identify and determine statelessness. However, the status of stateless people is enshrined in law and rights deriving from it include travel documents, right to work, social security, education and protection against discrimination, but without a procedure to determine who is stateless, rights are rarely granted in practice. The 1954 Convention requires state parties to facilitate naturalisation for stateless people, as a solution to their statelessness, to grant them a nationality as soon as possible. In Serbia, there is no facilitated naturalisation procedure for stateless people. Serbia has safeguards in its nationality law to prevent childhood statelessness, but there are challenges relating to implementation in practice. For further information on statelessness in Serbia, see the Statelessness Index country page.
Why is statelessness relevant to the refugee response in Serbia?
Although there is no reliable data on statelessness among refugee arrivals in Serbia, according to actors on the ground, populations affected by statelessness are present among arrivals and the most commonly encountered include bidoon from Kuwait, Hazaras from Iran and Rohingya from Myanmar. Some of the key statelessness-related challenges in the Serbian context are highlighted below.
Arrival & Registration
- Nationality problems are not being accurately identified and recorded on arrival. Individuals are often ascribed their country of origin as country of nationality.
- There is a general lack of understanding of statelessness issues by stakeholders, mainly because Serbia is perceived by all as a transit country and documentation is not required to access basic services in transit camps.
- The failure to identify or record statelessness, leads to registration with imputed nationality, which can later be difficult to correct.
Determination of refugee status
- A lack of clarity about someone’s nationality can impact on the assessment of credibility.
- The absence of state-funded legal aid and the inconsistent recourse to interpreters means decisions about how nationality status is recorded are rarely challenged.
- Since there is no procedure to determine who is stateless, and a lack of free legal aid, statelessness is missed or not adequately addressed, which may lead to a risk of prolonged and/or arbitrary detention.
- There appears to be a commonly held belief that individuals can be subject to return procedures and removed without proper determination of nationality status.
Child’s right to a nationality
- Children born in Serbia are exposed to the risk of statelessness.
- The lack of awareness of the implications of statelessness and gender discrimination in nationality laws leads to inconsistent implementation of the safeguard to grant nationality to otherwise stateless children born in the country.
- Children’s nationality is routinely registered as the same as their parents on the basis of the parents’ oral statement during the police registration without examining whether a parent can actually confer a nationality to the child
- Naturalisation is not facilitated for stateless people in Serbia. They must meet general residence, language, income and other requirements for naturalisation, which can be prohibitive for stateless people.
What are the priority areas for action to address statelessness in the Serbian context?
- A statelessness determination procedure and protection regime should be established in law to enable Serbia to meet its international obligations under the 1954 Convention and reduce the risk of arbitrary detention.
- Procedural clarity and clear guidance is required to support the accurate identification, registration and recording of statelessness and nationality problems among refugee arrivals.
- Access to birth registration (and an internationally recognised birth certificate) must be guaranteed for all children born in Serbia irrespective of the status of their parents, and the child’s right to a nationality upheld in practice.
- Safeguards in Serbian nationality law must be implemented in practice to prevent childhood statelessness arising from the current refugee context in Serbia.
- A facilitated route to naturalisation should be implemented and barriers to naturalisation removed for stateless persons in Serbia in line with the 1954 Convention.
The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) is a civil society alliance of over 140 non-governmental organisations, academics and individual experts in 40 countries, committed to addressing statelessness in Europe. ENS believes that everyone has the right to a nationality and that those who lack nationality altogether – stateless persons – are entitled to full protection of their human rights.
The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) is the first and the only human rights NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at the global level. ISI’s mission is to promote inclusive societies by realising and protecting the right to a nationality. ISI is working to address discrimination and promote inclusive citizenship, realise every child’s right to a nationality, tackle statelessness as a cause and consequence of displacement, make the stateless visible to development programming and counter arbitrary deprivation of nationality, particularly in security contexts.