Montenegro: UN agency helps refugees escape statelessness

5 August 2008

The United Nations refugee agency is helping thousands of refugees who fled to Montenegro from Kosovo to get legal representation.

More than 4,000 Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian refugees fled Kosovo in 1999 and a recent study in one camp found that almost half of them are at risk of statelessness since they have no legal documents to establish their identity.

Through a regional European Union Roma project in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo, and working with Catholic Relief Services/Legal Centre, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is helping Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian refugees obtain legal documents and register their children at school.

“In addition to extreme poverty and generally low levels of education, the lack of personal documents and/or civil registration represents a serious obstacle to the integration of Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees into mainstream Montenegrin society,” UNHCR's Representative in Montenegro, Serge Ducasse, said today.

“Many of their children are denied school registration and they can’t get proper jobs or full social services. Without proper documents Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian refugees are not recognized as persons before the law and are often in effect stateless. This statelessness can be carried down to future generations.”

According to UNHCR, Roma people often fail to register their children’s births. Not having one document leads to a “chain reaction” where individuals are unable to secure other documents and end up without any basic rights. Population movements over decades of conflicts in the Balkans have exacerbated this problem, as documents were lost and families were separated.

“We hope that by assisting a large number of cases, we will help bring about systemic changes and make it easier for others to carry out these tasks in the future without lawyers,” Mr. Ducasse explained.

Seven-year-old Adnan Behuli, who lives in Konik refugee camp in Podgorica, has finally obtained a birth certificate, a move that will allow him to enrol in elementary school in September.

“I'm so happy now,” said his father, Behrim, who lost an older son during the war in Kosovo and has no desire to go back. Unlike the other children who attend the branch school in the camp, Adnan will now get the chance to go to a local school outside the camp, where the quality of education is much higher, and he will therefore have more opportunities to integrate into wider Montenegrin society.

“I've been feeling guilty all these years,” added Behrim. who struggles to support his nine children on the $311 he earns every month as a street cleaner. But now my son will start school and will be able to have an education and hopefully get a proper job, not like his father.”

In total, 24,000 refugees from other parts of the former Yugoslavia still live in Montenegro.


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UN refugee agency offers legal help to Roma

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