Out of limbo: Promoting the right of undocumented and stateless Roma people to a legal status in Italy through community-based paralegals
A significant proportion of Roma people originating from the Balkans and living in Italy are stateless or at risk of statelessness and lack a residence permit and identity documents. As undocumented persons, they have no or limited access to social services, health care, education, employment and housing. They also risk receiving expulsion orders and being detained. An estimated 15,000 Roma children born in Italy find themselves in such a limbo of legal invisibility, even though their families have been living in Italy for decades. To promote the access of these people to a legal status, Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI), in partnership with the NGOs Associazione 21 Luglio and Fondazione Romanì, carried out the project OUT OF LIMBO, with support from the Open Society Foundations (September 2013-June 2015).
30 Roma and non-Roma social workers and activists working with Roma communities in different Italian cities received legal training through two residential workshops. This prepared them to play the role of ‘community-based paralegals.’ As part of the training, 15 of these paralegals, in cooperation with ASGI’s lawyers, supported one or two undocumented/stateless Roma people in acquiring a legal status. This process required a significant effort in coordination, training and supervision, but it reaped significant positive results. Out of the 27 individual documentation cases supported during the project, five undocumented youth born in Italy acquired Italian citizenship and five individuals obtained a residence permit on humanitarian grounds (the other cases are still pending or were rejected).
Thanks to their knowledge and the trust they built with the community, the paralegals were very effective in raising awareness about their rights and allowing for the identification and protection of individuals that are otherwise hidden from the system. Paralegals played a crucial role in collecting the information and documents needed to obtain a legal status, facilitating access of supported persons to public offices and administrative practices, advocating local authorities and reporting to lawyers for litigation when needed.
The paralegals also allowed ASGI to better understand the problems and possible solutions regarding statelessness, leading us to partly change our advocacy priorities. For example, we discovered that in the Roma communities that the paralegals worked with, many of the adults born in the former Yugoslavia held a nationality, while their children born in Italy were stateless or at risk of statelessness. According to Italian law, children born in Italy to non-nationals can acquire the Italian nationality when they come of age, if they submit an application to the Municipality by the age of 19, proving that they have been legally resident from birth to the age of 18, without interruptions. An important change to the law in 2013 provided that, in case of interruptions in legal residence, the youth can submit with his or her the application, any other evidence to prove his or her presence in Italy (school documentation, vaccinations etc.).1 Some Municipalities however, interpret this provision restrictively. Considering the positive results obtained in the individual documentation cases, as well as the difficulties met, we decided to partly change our advocacy focus from statelessness determination to the prevention of statelessness and the acquisition of Italian citizenship by youth born in Italy.
Based on the evidence collected by the paralegals, a report was published and presented at a national conference, organised in cooperation with the Commission on Human Rights of the Italian Senate, UNHCR and the National Association of Italian Municipalities. Relevant representatives of the Ministry of Interior and judges participated as speakers, making important commitments.
It must be said that the involvement of Roma paralegals proved a useful strategy to promote the participation and empowerment of this marginalised minority. Roma activists worked with non-Roma colleagues on an equal basis and were able to ensure their community’s rights thanks to their competences. Moreover, the professional and competent qualities they demonstrated through their work, made them strong role models for Roma communities and the majority population, challenging negative stereotypes of the Roma.
In conclusion, the methodology of paralegals, even though quite time-consuming and costly in terms of coordination, training etc, led to the opening up of new perspectives and relationships and sowed the seeds for longer-term strategies to ensure that marginalised stateless or at risk of statelessness persons can exit the limbo of legal invisibility.