Trapped in Limbo: Italy’s Stateless Roma

Imagine being a citizen of no country, living without fundamental rights. For thousands of Roma in Italy, statelessness is a daily struggle.

Italy is home to thousands of Roma families, many of whom are stateless or at risk of statelessness. They exist in legal limbo, lacking official citizenship for any country, deprived of fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights. Trapped by complexities of Italian bureaucracy or the impossibility of proving citizenship in their country of origin, they face a difficult struggle for recognition of their status.

In February the Italian Council for Refugees released In the Sun [PDF], a report that explores the legal, social, and cultural roots of statelessness among Roma living in Italy. Field research included visits to Roma settlements in Rome, Naples, and Milan, the administration of ad hoc questionnaires, and interviews and focus groups with representatives of Roma organizations.

The number of stateless people of Roma origin currently living in Italy is uncertain. Most come from the former Yugoslavia. Some were stateless while living in their country of origin; others lost their nationality after their home government collapsed.

Their situation is exacerbated by two factors:

  • Italian law requires demanding procedures for the recognition of stateless status, and the process is poorly regulated. This creates an administrative gauntlet that is extremely difficult to complete.
  • Roma in Italy face serious difficulties in obtaining nationality from their countries of origin.

Of the 239 Roma interviewed for this report, 139 possess no citizenship whatsoever. Of these, 105 said they intend to apply for citizenship, 23 confirmed that they wish to be recognized officially as stateless, and only 6 had started that process.

These figures should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in certifying statelessness, but instead as a testament to the inaccessibility of the process. The research clearly demonstrated the desire of many Roma people to obtain Italian citizenship, and to do whatever is needed to escape this condition of limbo. However, they often lack information on the statelessness determination procedure.

Children born in Italy to stateless parents face an even more difficult situation. In fact, the research pointed out some further practical difficulties:

  • the refusal of consulates to accept the identity of minors who possess only an Italian birth certificate without official registration with the authorities of the parents’ or grandparents’ native country;
  • the requirement that applicants appear in person to register their children in their country of origin, despite the fact that they do not possess a valid travel document, and that re-entry in Italy would be impossible given the absence of a residence permit;
  • the loss of citizenship following the dissolution of Yugoslavia;
  • problems associated with being a descendent of parents whose national status was uncertain.

The report contains recommendations for the Italian authorities such as the reform of citizenship laws, ratification of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and ratification of the Council of Europe’s conventions on nationality (1997) and on the avoidance of statelessness in relation to state succession (2006). The findings strongly confirm that a significant number of Roma families and children are excluded from the right to Italian citizenship.

This conclusion reinforces the importance of changing citizenship laws in Italy, and may facilitate a possible reform leaning towards the right of jus soli, which would bestow citizenship upon anyone born within the country.

In the short term, measures could be taken to streamline the current procedures and introduce more accessible requirements for the applicants. The two procedures currently in use in Italy for the recognition of the status of statelessness are quite inaccessible.

A directive should be adopted that clarifies the requirements and conditions for submitting a request for recognition of the status of statelessness, the competent authority for the procedure, the specific time frames for the procedure, and legal remedies and assistance.    

In fact, statelessness is not an issue limited to Italy; it affects more than 12 million people around the world and at least 600,000 in Europe. The EU has already stressed the need for a better integration of Roma in Europe through the Commission’s 2011 communication on the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies.

Subsequently, Italy issued its National Strategy for the Inclusion of Roma, Sinti, and Caminanti Communities, which includes provisions on social inclusion, integration, and health services, and establishes an interministerial legislative committee to study and propose legislative solutions to facilitate the recognition of the status of statelessness. However, officials are still working on its implementation.

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