March 01, 2014

Legal Aid Gives a Roma Family Hope of Leading a Normal Life

March 2014

NB* is a 43-year-old Roma man, who—along with his wife and three sons—lives in a rented hut in an illegal settlement in Novi Sad, Serbia. Over the years, he and his family members have been called refugees, returnees, internally displaced people (IDPs), asylum seekers, Roma and Kosovars—none of which has earned them the identity documents and residency registrations they need to lead normal lives.

Following the 1999 Kosovo war, NB—who was born in Kosovo— and his family have moved from town to town as IDPs and from country to country as refugees. That year, NB and his wife migrated to Montenegro, and later on to Germany, where they lived for a number of years and received some government support. In 2008, the German government decided that Kosovo was safe enough for NB and his family to return. In their quest to avoid deportation to Kosovo, they briefly sought asylum in Belgium. The German government asked that they be sent back to Germany and, in January 2009, returned them to Kosovo. The family, which by then had three kids—ages 15, 14 and 12—and which had not lived in Kosovo in over a decade, settled in a neighborhood where the local population’s tolerance for Roma people was very low. The youngest son was beaten up by Albanian neighbors and in spring 2013, the family packed its belongings and moved to Novi Sad in search of a safer environment for the children. They now live among the 2,700 Roma in the Veliki Rit community.

While NB has a Kosovo-registered identity card, his wife’s documents were destroyed during the 1999 war, and the children—born in Montenegro, Germany and Belgium, respectively—have never had—either proof of citizenship—or birth certificates. Currently, none of the family members—not even NB with his Kosovo-issued birth certificate and identity card or his youngest son who has epilepsy—can access services from the Serbian government. To get basic assistance or work, NB needs to change his identity card and secure Serbian citizenship, which requires that he leave the illegal settlement for someplace with a “qualifying address”. But, having no income and receiving no government support, he cannot afford to live at a qualifying address.

The ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and local partner, the Novi Sad Humanitarian Center (NSHC), work together to provide free legal services to Roma communities in five Balkan countries: Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. Amidst their challenges, NB and his family learned about NSHC and, in April 2013, came to its legal aid clinic seeking help. While the center’s lawyer, Djiana Malbasa, has gone to various government agencies on the family’s behalf, the government’s social welfare office and its refugee center have both refused to help the family unless they produce Serbian identity cards and residency permits. The NSHC has appealed to a Serbian court to have the births of NB’s wife—born in Kosovo—and one of his sons—born in Montenegro—registered in Serbia. The center, working with the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has also helped one of NB’s sons obtain his birth certificate from Belgium, and is striving to secure a birth certificate for the German-born son. Additionally, the center has asked local police to issue proof of residence to NB’s family.

While she acknowledges that the process has not been easy, Djiana says that the NSHC will continue to help NB’s family and other Roma families secure residence registrations, along with all the accompanying rights. Djiana says, “The most encouraging fact is NB’s awareness of the necessity to obtain these personal documents and his willingness to cooperate with NSHC lawyers in finding a legal remedy.”

To learn more about our Roma regional work, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.