“Legal ghosts”

Interview about statelessness with Brita Helleland, UNHCR Representative to Montenegro, in weekly magazine ‘Monitor’.

A stateless person may face many difficulties in daily life: lack of access to health care, education, employment, property rights and freedom of movement.

MONITOR: Could you briefly explain to our readers who are stateless persons and which rights are denied to these persons?

HELLELAND: Nationality is a legal bond between a state and an individual, thus statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered as a national by any state. Although all persons have a connection to a state through birth, ancestry or residence, they may not possess its nationality due to legal reasons or discrimination. A stateless person may face many difficulties in daily life: lack of access to health care, education, employment, property rights and freedom of movement. Persons who are citizens of some country usually take all these rights for granted. But there are also persons who formally possess a nationality but are not able, or are denied, to enjoy the protection and rights of her/his country. These persons are in a similar situation as stateless persons, and the term de facto statelessness has often been used. However, there is no universally accepted definition of this term. 

MONITOR: Is there a difference between stateless persons or they are all equally vulnerable?

HELLELAND: Yes, there is a difference between stateless persons. A person, who has been recognized by the state as a stateless person, is generally given the same rights as that of a foreigner save from the right to take part in elections. A stateless person who is not recognized by the state, has none of these rights by law, and is vulnerable to arbitrary treatment and crimes like trafficking.

MONITOR: Which negative consequences the state is suffering because there are no records of citizens living in its territory? Trafficking, violence?

HELLELAND: The fact that stateless persons are excluded from civic processes in society and life in constant uncertainty undermines the reciprocal relationship between duties and rights. In fact, non-citizens also tend to be marginalized in areas where formally they have rights. In most cases they have little chance of being heard themselves and are in many cases silenced by their fear of further discrimination. Protracted marginalization of this group creates perfect conditions for socially unacceptable behavior and many of these people can be exposed to different types of criminal acts against them. The persistence of “legal ghosts” in today’s Europe is unacceptable and states should work harder to diminish this problem.

MONITOR: According to your knowledge, how many stateless persons there are in the world? 

HELLELAND: UNHCR estimates that there are 12 million stateless persons around the globe but the exact numbers are not known. Many countries do not recognize the scope of the problem, and do not identify or register people who are stateless or at risk of being stateless.

MONITOR: How do you comment the fact that there are no precise data on the number of stateless persons in Montenegro while the speculation goes about the figure of 60.000?

HELLELAND: Montenegro has signed the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, but has not yet established a mechanism for identifying and determining the status of stateless persons, which is one of the recommendations of this Convention. Before such a mechanism is in place, it will be difficult to identify the scope of the problem. UNHCR has recommended the Government to establish such a mechanism, and expect that this will be done as Montenegro is a signatory to the 1954 Convention. UNHCR’s initial research tells that around 2,900 persons in Montenegro are at risk of being stateless. This figure comprises 1,600 RAE IDPs from Kosovo and 1,300 domicile Roma. A study currently being done of the population in the Konik area by the Government of Montenegro and UN agencies will bring more light to the problem, when completed in September 2011. For the time being, we have no research among non-Roma population to identify individuals at risk of statelessness.

WE EXPECT THE ACTIONS OF THE GOVERNMENTMONITOR: Montenegro is a signatory to the conventions related to stateless persons save from the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It could be heard from the UN Office that the other conventions were signed accidentally in a package with other conventions. Whether it is ignorance or a way to avoid dealing with the problem?

HELLELAND: It is common that a successor state adopts ‘packages’ of conventions from the ‘mother state’ after the dissolution. The same happened in 2006 when Montenegro regained independence. Along with becoming the UN member state in 2006, Montenegro succeeded to all UN treaties ratified by Yugoslavia and later Serbia and Montenegro as of 3 June 2006, including the 1954 Convention on Status of Stateless Persons. In addition, in 2010 Montenegro ratified the 1997 European Convention on Nationality and the 2006 Council of Europe Convention on Avoidance of Statelessness in Relation to State Succession as the 4th European country who is state party to this convention. I see it in this way: these conventions are signed and ratified by Montenegro, and the state is obliged to abide by the conventions. The Montenegrin state is young and needs time to develop and establish systems to follow up these conventions. I do not think the Government is running away from its obligations and I expect to see action and progress in the coming period. And we should not forget that the fact that the country is a signatory to these conventions gives the civil society and the population of concern an excellent tool to ask the Government for action in this field.

MONITOR: Will the result of population census in Montenegro give more accurate picture of stateless persons?

HELLELAND: The Census that was undertaken in April this year will give some indication of the extent of statelessness in Montenegro, as one of the questions was related to statelessness. Self-declared statelessness is of course not statistics and further information is needed. However, results of the census will help us to have indications on the magnitude of statelessness in Montenegro.

MONITOR: General public links the notion of statelessness only to Roma, and often it can be heard that many Montenegrin residents cannot obtain personal documents.

HELLELAND: During the last 20 years, Montenegro has gone through two state disintegrations and has had four changes in the organization of the state. It was followed by the adoption of the new citizenship legislation and changes regarding the citizenship policy. Experience from other similar situations tells that this leaves people at risk of statelessness and I would be surprised if this did not happen in Montenegro. In addition, the conflicts during the 1990’s led to large-scale population movements from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo and the loss or destruction of personal documents and civil registries. This hindered many in establishing their citizenship status. However, we need more information and fact about these problems in order to see how it can be addressed and how people with documentation problems can be assisted.

MONITOR: The problem of statelessness is impossible to resolve without regional cooperation. What are the obstacles to this cooperation and what needs to be done for this cooperation to gain ground?

HELLELAND: During the Sarajevo Process/Belgrade Initiative, the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia have come a long way as regards agreements to end the refugee situation from the conflict in the period between 1991 and 1995. This includes work to solve documentation problems, a task that is being led by the Government of Montenegro. Although the current collaboration is not directly linked to statelessness, it touches part of the problem. This cooperation shows that the governments are ready to get together to solve problems and is an indication of how problems related to statelessness can be solved.


MONITOR: How is the communication between the UN Agencies in Montenegro and ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior?

HELLELAND: For 2011 the UN Thematic group on Human Rights selected statelessness as a theme with the aim to raise awareness in Montenegro on the problem of statelessness. We have an open dialogue with the mentioned ministries, but the work is still in its start. We have given three recommendations to the Government of Montenegro related to statelessness: to allow people who failed to register at birth to register in the birth registry (subsequent registration of birth), which is the primary requirement to enter into the citizenship registry; to establish a mechanism for identifying and determining statelessness, which will give stateless individuals access to rights to which they are entitled; and to sign the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which will help the Government to reduce and prevent further statelessness. So far, the Government has not responded to our recommendations. A ministerial conference will take place in Geneva in December 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the convention and the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention. This conference will be an excellent chance for Montenegro to present its pledge to sign the 1961 Convention thus reconfirming its devotion to respect international standards in protection of human rights.


Veseljko Koprivica
Monitor, pages 43, 44, 45
08 July 2011

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