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Sunday December 9, 2012

Stateless children living a nightmare

“WHICH country do you belong to?” the man sitting next to me on the plane asked. I answered without giving much thought, assuming that he meant my country of nationality.

For most people, the answer is an easy one since it is something they have known since birth. But for an estimated 12 million people globally, they simply don't have an answer.

They don't have a country to which they belong; they don't have a nationality; they don't have an identity. They are the hidden, the invisible, the forgotten, the stateless. They are the citizens of no country.

Out of this estimated 12 million, UNHCR believes half, around six million, are children who are stateless. They are found throughout the world, including in Malaysia. Many of these children do not have access to healthcare, education, welfare benefits and protection from harm. Living in a state of limbo, leading uncertain and unprotected lives, they never get to experience a normal childhood.

But these invisible children are no different from your children. They, too, have dreams of becoming successful some day as an entrepreneur maybe, or an astronaut, or even the next Justin Bieber. The only difference is that they remain in the shadows, their dreams never having the chance to be realised, and their lives trapped in the cycle of poverty.

That is not a life we dream for our children. Neither should it be for these children.

A child can become stateless in various ways. From simply being born in the wrong country, or because they are the “wrong” race, or because their parents are stateless, or because they were just abandoned and do not know where they were born and who their parents are. The list is endless but none of it is the child's fault.

A simple step that can be taken to prevent statelessness is by registering the birth of the child. This step is the first legal recognition of the child. While birth registration itself does not confer nationality in most cases, what it does provide is proof of place of birth and parental links information which is used to determine the child's nationality.

Despite the fact that most countries in the world have made a commitment to respect the right to an identity, 51 million births still go unregistered each year in developing countries, according to UNICEF. Industrialised countries are not immune to this problem either, albeit at a smaller problem, with some 218,000 unrecorded births each year.

It's an issue in Malaysia too, despite its high registration rates. Some children in the country are still unregistered, placing them at risk of abuse, exploitation and statelessness. Exact numbers are unknown but what is clear is that it is a worrying problem, given the number of cases that are highlighted frequently in the media.

The question then arises, who are these children in Malaysia? They are primarily found among the following vulnerable groups: abandoned babies, orphaned children, indigenous children, children from certain ethnic groups, and migrant children the same groups that are vulnerable to non-registration in other parts of the world.

A common thread tying these groups together is poverty. It is thus not a surprise that poverty together with lack of awareness, language difficulties, cultural practices, remote geographical locations and complex administrative requirements are the main barriers to registration.

As a result of non-registration at birth, there are children who have grown into non-registered adults with non-registered children of their own. Without a birth certificate, they are unable to work in the formal sector, to obtain a passport, driving licence, bank loan, vote, marry legally or even register the birth of their child. The inability of these individuals to realise their potential is a loss to their parents, family, community and the country at large. This is the case for some families in Malaysia, where several generations of them are unregistered, even though they were born and bred here and know no other country.

Today, new technologies are being taken advantage of to register births. These new systems use digital techniques and include mobile technology that allow people to register in remote areas. Simple cost-effective and innovative solutions such as these can change the lives of these children immediately. However, these solutions can only come about through commitment to provide increased resources, better infrastructure and more effective procedures.

The upcoming high-level meeting on the Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics in Asia and the Pacific provides an opportunity for Malaysia and other countries in the region to share knowledge, experience and resources which can go towards improving birth registration systems.

Let us give children the right start in life by making their lives count. Let us give them a chance for their dreams to be realised. Let us make visible the invisible children. It only takes one simple piece of paper. >

Selvi Supramaniam is the Child Protection Specialist with Unicef Malaysia.

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