The Roma community is one of the most disadvantaged communities living in Kosovo. Among other problems they face is the lack of Kosovo civil documents. Some Roma, for different reasons were ineligible to get Kosovo civil documents. This lack of documents impacted the further marginalisation of the members of this community.
During the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, on 2nd July 2011, the Agreement on Civil Registry was signed, which significantly contributed to solving this problem. This agreement stipulated that the parties would jointly make every possible effort to establish a fully reliable civil registry in Kosovo aiming at identification of the gaps in missing original pre-1999 civil registry books.
According to the 2011 population census, there are 1,798,506 people living in Kosovo, among them are many different minority communities, of which 35,784 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (8,824 Roma, 15,436 Ashkali and 11,524 Egyptians), constituting slightly more than 2% of the total population. Kosovo Constitution recognises the Roma community as one of its ethnic minorities, and as such, it grants equal rights, within the international and domestic standards of the human rights framework.
Before the conflict, there were more than 100,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians living in Kosovo, according to OSCE reports, huge numbers left during and after the hostilities, those who stayed and returned were negatively affected within the civil registration system. Civil registration is a fundamental right whereby a person is identified and recognised as a member of the country/society in which the person lives. For years after the end of the conflict, Roma had challenges exercising this right. Certificates and other personal identification documents had been lost, not obtained on time, or were hard to obtain, as one had to travel to Serbia for older documents. Challenges to get personal documentation resulted in many Roma not being able to secure regular employment or the minimal social welfare. School registration, travel or other necessary activities which required personal documents were other major obstacles that this community faced daily.
Although I was aware of the difficulties in obtaining personal documents encountered by my friends and family, I only came face to face with the issues when my daughter was born in 2009, in a hospital in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica. Back then, the Kosovo registration offices did not accept documents that were issued from Serbian institutions. After much effort and going from office to office, my daughter ended up having three birth certificates – the Serbian, UNMIK and Kosovo one. With progress being made at the Kosovo registration offices, when I had my second child in 2014, I succeeded in getting my son the Kosovo birth certificate with only the discharge letter from the hospital in the north of Mitrovicë/Mitrovica. I was curious to find out what had contributed to this difference, thus I discovered that it was the agreement on the Civil Registry, signed by Kosovo and Serbia in 2011. Many from the Roma community are not aware of the existence of the Civil Registry Agreement, and as a result of this, many Roma continue to be unregistered.
The implementation of the Driving License Agreement has also affected my life. Back in October 2010, I successfully passed my driving test in Zveçan/Zvečan, north of Kosovo. I passed the theory and practical test, with that, I obtained the Serbian driving license. It was, however, an invalid document for the Kosovo institutions. I obtained it from an official entity, so I decided to take the risk and drive. Of course, quite often, I was reminded by police that I must obtain the Kosovo Driving License, and in most cases, I ended up with a traffic ticket. This lasted until 2012, when Prishtinë/Priština reached an agreement with Belgrade for such driving licenses to be legally changed to Kosovo ones without having to go through the whole process again.
I was interested to find out how this agreement had affected other Roma in Kosovo, so I asked around and the story began to sound familiar. A good friend of mine from south of Mitrovicë/Mitrovica had a similar experience. He left Kosovo for Italy as a refugee in 1999. After a forced return in 2009, he only had the Yugoslavian ID. From Serbia he managed to get his birth certificate and a new ID, but these were not accepted by the Kosovo authorities. Without Kosovo documents he couldn’t register his son and the possibility of being stopped by police, for whatever reason, was very stressful. An NGO tried to assist him, but the process dragged on for years. In 2013, the Kosovar municipal authorities were able to find him in the system and issued him with a birth certificate which led to him getting the Kosovo ID.
So, clearly there have been tangible effects of the technical dialogue and when one realises that there are so many similar experiences, one can begin to appreciate the impact. However, Kosovo institutions need to sufficiently inform the beneficiaries of these agreements; Roma are still disenfranchised through lack of information at the municipal level and weak representation at the central level. The values of a country are understood best by its treatment of minorities. Involving Roma with more responsibility, cooperation, space and more opportunities should make a stronger path for a better positioned Kosovo. A society is empowered as much as its most disadvantaged groups are. The more people who contribute to Kosovo’s development, the better it will be.
Avni Mustafa was born in Plemetina, Kosovo in 1987. Avni is a human rights activist and trainer. As a young activist he worked as manager of the local NGO Romano Resaipe. During this time, he published a book entitled The Needs and Problems of Roma Ashkalis and Egyptians in the municipality of Obiliq/Obilić. He has worked as a journalist with Public Service of Kosovo and was the director of the short documentary film Our Journey. He has also been involved in the Community Counsel, Rolling Film Festival and Balkan Sunflowers Kosova. Currently Avni is the Director of Roma Versitas Kosovo.