Praxis Watch

Friday, 17 June 2022

When Laws Are Worth Little

Edita [1] does not have a health card or an ID card. She was born 30 years ago in Germany, where her parents moved from Đakovica in the early 1990s. Due to the unregulated status in Germany, she had to return to Serbia three years ago. Edita has not been able to obtain personal documents since then.

Three months ago, Edita gave birth to her son. Although the law stipulates that in cases where mothers do not have health insurance, the funds for expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth are provided from the state budget, the maternity hospital where Edita gave birth did not take this into account. From the moment of Edita’s admittance to the maternity hospital, the employees were telling her that she would have to pay hospital expenses and threatened her that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital until she paid the expenses.

As Edita did not have personal documents, the maternity hospital - applying the instructions of the competent ministries for handling cases of undocumented women giving birth - called the police that were supposed to establish the mother’s identity. However, the maternity hospital misused the arrival of the police to further intimidate Edita by threatening her that the police allegedly came to arrest her, because she did not have money to pay for medical expenses.

Edita's family has 12 members and only one of them is employed. They live as tenants and barely make ends meet. They borrowed 500 euros to pay the expenses, because the hospital staff initially told them that it would be the total amount. However, when they wanted to pay, it turned out that the expenses were around 900 euros, and the family members were told not to show up until they brought the full amount, and that the costs would increase with each additional day of hospital stay. Finally, the family had to borrow more money and pay everything that was requested.

New problems arose when Edita tried to register her son in birth registry books. Edita was told in the registry office that the child could not be registered until she obtained an ID card. Consequently, Edita's son remains unregistered, and therefore does not have a health card, and the family cannot receive parental and child allowance. Although both the Constitution and the Law on Family, as well as international conventions, stipulate that every child must be registered immediately after birth, in practice this rule does not apply to children whose mothers do not have personal documents - these children remain unregistered until their mothers obtain documents or until special procedures are conducted before social welfare centres or registry offices. It delays the registration of the child for a few months at best, and often for several years. For example, Edita's older daughter, who is 3 years old, is still not registered in registry books.

Despite the fact that many international bodies have for years been pointing out that this situation is inadmissible and that it violates the rights of the child, the competent authorities in Serbia do not show readiness to remedy this situation and amend the by-laws regulating birth notification and registration in registry books, including certain provisions that prevent the timely registration of children whose mothers do not have documents.

Unfortunately, Edita cannot hope that she will soon be able to obtain her documents. In 2020, she initiated the procedure for determining the citizenship of Serbia, but that procedure seems to be still at the very beginning. Although the law is on Edita's side also in this case, it is not consistently applied in practice. In fact, the Law on Citizenship of the Republic of Serbia stipulates that citizenship shall be acquired by a person whose both parents were citizens of Serbia at the time of his or her birth, or if one parent was a citizen of Serbia and the other is unknown or of unknown citizenship or stateless. Edita has a proof that her father is a citizen of Serbia, but she lacks such a proof for her mother, because the registry books in which her mother was registered after the 1999 war in Kosovo remained inaccessible to the authorities of the Republic of Serbia. Although more than 20 years have passed since then, the authorities have still not fulfilled their obligation and have not reconstructed all unavailable registry books. It is unnecessary to stress that citizens should not bear the consequences of the fact that the registry books have not been preserved or reconstructed. On top of all that, a large number of registry offices have recently stopped conducting procedures for re-registration of citizenship data, which were conducted at the request of citizens, and now it is only possible to conduct much more complicated, uncertain, lengthy and expensive procedures for determining citizenship before the Ministry of Interior.

However, even if we disregard this inadmissible situation due to which Edita cannot prove that her mother was a citizen of Serbia, the fact is that, based on her father's citizenship, Edita fulfils the condition for acquiring Serbian citizenship as a person whose one parent was a Serbian citizen and the other parent is stateless or of unknown citizenship. Nevertheless, the authority before which the procedure is being conducted informed Edita that her request for determining citizenship would not be accepted until the mother's citizenship was determined. And it seems very unlikely because Edita's mother is old and sick, lives abroad and most probably does not have the evidence that would be required in the procedure of determining citizenship.

Although laws should be instruments that guarantee citizens the exercise of their rights and that prevent arbitrary actions of state bodies and services, Edita did not have the opportunity to witness their effectiveness. On the contrary, although the law prescribes that she does not have to pay the costs of childbirth, she paid 900 euros; although the regulations require that every child must be registered in birth registry books immediately after birth, her two children are still unable to obtain a birth certificate; although she meets the legal requirements for Serbian citizenship, the question is whether she will ever be able to obtain it. Laws should also protect the most vulnerable and ensure the equality of citizens, but for Edita and her family, poverty-stricken members of the Roma national minority, not only has this purpose not been achieved, but the unlawful action has led to even greater marginalisation and deeper poverty, leaving her and her children without personal documents and without the opportunity to access most rights.

 

 [1] Her real name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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