Slovenia has long been hailed as the most promising of the new EU members. But not everyone has benefited from the nation's progress: A small ethnic minority known as Izbrisani has been simply erased from the books.
Not their country anymore?
Independent from Yugoslavia since 1991, Slovenia inherited a good infrastructure and trade connections, not to mention a fair amount of tourism and modern factories. Today, Slovenians enjoy the highest living standards among the former Communist countries that entered the European Union in May.
But in this tiny country of two million people, a small minority has been left out of this rising tide of prosperity. In fact, they have been left out of just about everything. They are known as the Izbrisani, or "the erased people," because they were removed from the administrative registers after Slovenia declared its independence.
Main square in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana
Slovenia was practically left untouched by the violent ethnic conflict that tore up Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It has always tried to distance itself from the negative image of the Balkans, portraying itself as a modern Western nation which respects human rights. But the tragic fate of the Izbrisani suggests Slovenia also has its dark chapters and that Balkan chauvinism in Slovenia is perhaps not as far fetched as many Slovenes would like to think.
"We are living dead"
Jemail Shatani, 38-year old gypsy, or Roma, is originally from Kosovo, but settled in Slovenia 20 years ago. He married Sanja, also from Kosovo, and found a permanent job in Slovenia’s second largest town Maribor working for the city’s waste management and water supplies.
But in 1992, Shatani’s life took a tragic turn. He discovered, by chance, that he no longer officially existed. Having failed to apply for Slovenian citizenship after the country became independent, the authorities had wiped his name from the registers.
Map of Slovenia
"The collapse of Yugoslavia and the administrative chaos here in Slovenia have put us in a situation where we have died, but are still alive," Shatani said. "We are living dead. Our fate is worse than that of cats and dogs. We don’t have any identity. My wife, my kids and myself are stateless. We are not citizens of any country in this world."
Shatani tried to get new papers in Kosovo, but he and his wife were not listed in the state registers there either. He also sought legal help and then pursued the matter through the courts – without any immediate success.
Today, 13 years later, he has managed to get his permanent Slovenian residency back, but not full citizenship, nor his work permit or passports for his family. Jemail’s wife, Sanja, hasn’t seen her mother and her brother for 15 years now. Her four kids always ask her: "Why don’t we have a grandmother?" It’s awful, she said in tears. Without passports you cannot go anywhere.
No future in Slovenia
In Slovenia, there is no future for his family, Shatani said. If they ever get passports, they will immediately leave the country. Anywhere would be better than Slovenia, he added.
The "erasure" of Shatani and his family is not an isolated case. When Slovenia declared independence, 130,000 or so non-Slovene residents were given six months to apply for citizenship. Most completed the necessary paperwork and became Slovenian citizens. But at least 18,000 did not register. Many were not well informed and didn’t know about the new legislation. Others were afraid of political persecution: after all, ethnic wars were raging in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, and nobody knew what the future would hold.
Even for those who did want Slovenian citizenship, it was difficult, if not impossible to get the necessary papers because of these ongoing conflicts. Was it reasonable to expect a Bosnian Muslim to risk death by returning to his Serb-occupied home – just to pick up a birth certificate? The bureaucratic demands of the Slovene authorities were at odds with the realities of wartime Yugoslavia.
Erased in 1992
Even so, on Feb. 26, 1992, those 18,000 people were simply erased from registers. Many of the erased people didn’t find out about their illegal status till months, even years, later.
The Ministry of the Interior was responsible for the erasure. Today, Alenka Mesojedic is the head of the Citizenship and Naturalization Section at the ministry. She’s cautious – and defensive – when confronted with this allegation.
“Yes. No. No. It’s not correct. They all remained in the register, but they were not entitled on the rights as the Slovenian citizens," she said. "No one was erased physically, but legally they were not entitled on the rights which were related to the citizens."
Piran fishing village
Many of these people had lived in Slovenia for 10, 20, sometimes even 30 years. From one day to the next they lost everything: their social security, their health care, their driving license, their passport – basically, their identity.
Matevz Krivic is a former constitutional judge and now a legal representative for some of the erased people.
“People lost jobs, people lost pensions, people lost medical care, some of them died," he said.
Some were deported and at least seven people are known to have committed suicide. However Neva Predan of Helsinki Monitor in Slovenia, a human rights organization that has been fighting for the rights of the erased for the past 10 years, goes further.
“It is genocide," he said. "It is a very efficient administrative tool of ethnic cleansing and this is a speciality of Slovenian authorities and it shows a genocide mind.”
Twice – in 1999 and in 2003 - Slovenia’s highest court has ordered the government to restore the rights of the erased. But little action seems to have been taken. The government works on a case-by-case basis, and progress is painfully slow.
Erwan Fouere, the EU ambassador to Slovenia, said he remains optimistic that the issue will eventually be resolved. But did Brussels even raise the issue of the erased during Slovenia’s EU accession talks?
Slovenian and Italian workers tear down a border fence between the two countries.
"It never featured in the actual negotiations, but of course in the reports there was always a reference to issues such as the erased," he said. "I think this highlighted that we were aware of the problem and we felt it was important that the legal limbo had to be addressed as speedy as possibly."
To this day there has not been an official apology, let alone any reparations.