16 June 2014


Birth registration, the official recording of a child's birth by the government, establishes the existence of the child under law and provides the foundation for safeguarding many of the child's civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies that every child has the right to be registered at birth without any discrimination.

Nevertheless, the births of nearly 230 million children under the age of five worldwide have never been officially recorded. Asia is home to more than half of these children.

Apart from being the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence, birth registration is central to ensuring that children are counted and have access to basic services such as health, social security and education. Knowing the age of a child is central to protecting them from child labour, being arrested and treated as adults in the justice system, forcible conscription in armed forces, child marriage, trafficking and sexual exploitation. A birth certificate as proof of birth can support the traceability of unaccompanied and separated children and promote safe migration. In effect, birth registration is their ‘passport to protection.’ 
Despite the importance of obtaining official and documented proof of registration, around 290 million children (or 45 per cent of all children under age five worldwide), do not possess a birth certificate. Universal birth registration is one of the most powerful instruments to ensuring equity over a broad scope of services and interventions for children.

In Sierra Leone, the Christian Brothers have collaborated with Plan international and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation in raising awareness around the importance of this issue.

Statelessness  is a separate but related problem.

Some lucky babies are entitled to a clutch of passports: one born in America to a Lebanese father and Japanese mother, for example, can have three. Other unfortunates—one born in Norway to a Lebanese mother and unknown father, say—are entitled to none at all. Unless some country takes pity on them, they will join the world’s 10m or so stateless people in legal limbo, acknowledged as citizens nowhere. Many are unable to work legally, travel across borders or use public services. Almost none can vote or stand for election.

Some of the biggest groups of stateless people are in countries with poor statistics; those who can be counted number 3.5m.

Many lack a nationality because their homelands splintered and they fell in the cracks between successor states’ citizenship rules.

Governments sometimes make residents stateless, even when no borders have been redrawn. Myanmar grants citizenship to 135 ethnic groups—but not the Rohingya, who are Muslims with a distinctive language in a mainly Buddhist country. Around 800,000 stateless Rohingya live within its borders and almost as many elsewhere, having fled persecution.

A recent push by the UN to get more countries to sign two treaties granting basic rights to stateless residents, and seeking to resolve their legal status, has started to bear fruit. Last year Ivory Coast, where disputes about nationality have fuelled civil conflict, became the 20th country to ratify at least one of the treaties since 2011. It is now taking steps to resolve the citizenship of several hundred thousand stateless residents.

But even as some countries are cutting statelessness, in others it is on the rise. Last year a court in the Dominican Republic ruled that citizens of Haitian descent born since the country’s constitution was written in 1929 should have their citizenship status reviewed and “corrected”, making more than 200,000 people stateless and excluding them from schools, health care and formal jobs.

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