The Importance of Birth Registration

“We must not forget the millions of stateless people whose dreams of nationality will never come to fruition. They also need our help to enjoy basic human rights right now,” remarked UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in 2007. Yet the international community often highly overlooks statelessness and the adverse implications of such status. While many individuals tend to take the legal acquisition of a nationality for granted, the acquirement of nationality can heavily dictate the quality of life for an individual.  

Statelessness refers to the status of a person who is not recognized as a national by any state and subsequently experiences difficulties procuring access to basic amenities such as health care, education and social welfare. Adverse effects often accompany such status including abuse, exploitation and persecution. Proper registration practices following the birth of a child serve as crucial steps in the prevention of statelessness. 

International conventions, legal precedents and norms recognize the criticality of birth registration practices. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expresses every child’s right to registration immediately after birth, the right to a name and nationality and the right as far as possible, to know and be cared for by his or her parents. Additionally, both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights address a child’s inherent right to a nationality. However, a lacuna exists between international legal norms and the implementation of proper birth registration practices in developing regions of the world. Even in developed nations with good practices, the sudden influx of large numbers of refugees can undermine universal access to birth registration. 

Nationality laws and subsequent birth registration procedures vary with respect to individual countries. However, most practices encompass an interaction between parents and government officials, and the subsequent distribution of identification documents such as a birth certificate. The process of registering births is a hallmark of collaboration between the state and its inhabitants; yet a multitude of factors hamper such relations. According to the UN Refugee Agency and Plan International, specific circumstances can increase the risk of future statelessness for children whose births are not registered properly, including mixed-nationality parentage, birth in a migratory setting, birth to ethnic or marginalized minorities, and birth in a border area. 

A societal lack of awareness, discriminatory and enigmatic nationality laws, stringent legal documentation requirements, and logistical time and monetary constraints are some of the many bureaucratic barriers which impede birth registration practices. Yet examples of good practice in birth registration exist as key models for international organizations, state officials, and local governments to aspire to replicate. By overcoming the impediments to birth registration and properly completing the process, most individuals should be able to acquire a nationality, identity, and tie to their state, thereby preventing statelessness. For those estranged from the registration process due to displacement, trauma or another circumstance beyond their control, measures should be taken to ensure registration as soon as possible. 

Tara Celata is an intern at Refugees International.

Photo: Stateless Rohingya children in Myanmar.