Accessing documents, preventing statelessness
1. The importance of civil registration and legal identity during displacement
In displacement, accessing civil registration and documentation can be vital for people to be able to prove who they are and where they come from. It is also often required to access lifesaving humanitarian assistance as well as other essential services; and to be afforded the full protection of the law. However this can prove challenging for those who have fled their homes, as previous documents may have been lost or destroyed or people may never have had them in the first place. In conflict-affected countries, civil registries may no longer be accessible or functioning, or may have been damaged or purposefully destroyed if ethnicity or nationality was a component of the conflict, such as in Côte d’Ivoire or the Central African Republic.
In the long-term access to registration, documentation and identification are important prerequisites for lasting solutions to displacement, such as obtaining permission to stay in countries of exile or to reclaim housing, land and property upon return.
2. Legal identity of children born in displacement
Parents of children born while displaced need to be able to register their birth. This is the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence: without a proof of identity a child is invisible to the authorities. Having a legal identity offers a degree of legal protection and provides access to rights and services such as education and healthcare. Birth registration can help identify unaccompanied children, show their relationship with their parents, and facilitate the acquisition of nationality in order to prevent statelessness.
However, many difficulties can arise in registering birth for families in a foreign land or in a different part of their country. This can be further complicated if the parents do not have documents to prove who they are or where they come from, or if the national law of the country where they are seeking to register the child requires the parents to be legally married for the birth to be registered. In many countries, customary and/or religious marriages are the norm and are not always officially registered in civil registries. Furthermore, documents proving the marriage may have been lost or destroyed during flight or conflict, making it difficult to register the birth.
Without birth registration, children may be denied basic rights and protection. Particularly in times of emergency, children are at heightened risk of being separated from their families and care givers. This can often result in children becoming involved in sexual exploitation, trafficking, recruitment into armed groups and hazardous work.
3. Risk of statelessness
The precarious and unstable circumstances of displacement can, at times, increase the risk of becoming stateless, even for those who had formerly possessed a nationality. One way in which this can happen is when refugees lose their identity documents and struggle to prove the bond with their home country. A lack of documentation does not mean someone is stateless per se, however, it makes it more difficult to prove nationality. As displacement continues over time, it becomes harder to maintain legal links with their country of origin, and thus the risk of statelessness rises. Children born
in exile can also be at risk of statelessness, for instance when their parents are unable to register their birth or due to conflicts of nationality laws between the host country and the country of origin.
The nexus between statelessness and displacement was explored in a joint scoping paper by NRC and Tilburg University published in 2015. The paper looks at the ways stateless communities are often at risk of forced displacement, as well as how forced displacement itself can increase the risk of statelessness. The report also examines how statelessness increases vulnerability in forced displacement contexts, and the extent to which this poses additional challenges for individuals who may already be in precarious situations. The paper calls on the humanitarian community to understand the potential for statelessness among displaced populations and to be able to identify and assist those most at risk. At a minimum, measures to prevent new cases of statelessness should be incorporated into humanitarian responses. The humanitarian community should also make efforts to identify stateless persons in displacement, enhance their protection and assist them to find lasting solutions.
4. NRC's work on statelessness
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is an independent, humanitarian, non-governmental organisation, which provides assistance, protection, and contributes to durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. NRC runs Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) programmes which aim at assisting displaced persons to claim their rights through the provision of information and legal support. NRC ICLA programmes are currently being implemented in 20 conflict-affected countries worldwide.1
ICLA programmes include a focus on legal identity, which involves promoting the right for all to be recognised before the law, the right to universal birth registration, and the right to a nationality. It also involves initiatives to prevent statelessness among those forcibly displaced. NRC works to prevent statelessness by supporting refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to access civil registration procedures, civil documentation (such as birth, marriage or death certificates), as well as national identity documents.
In practice, this means that NRC provides information on rights, procedures and remedies and legal counselling for displaced persons seeking to register a vital event such as a birth or a marriage. NRC's legal staff may also accompany people in visits to administrative authorities or represent them in court in order to get the documents they need. It also assists authorities to understand and fulfil their obligations towards those affected by displacement through the provision of training to local authorities and other stakeholders on the relevant laws, rights and obligations in relation to civil registration and documentation in the country or area where the displaced live.
Since legal identity and access to civil documentation may also be required to access other humanitarian assistance, ICLA staff work together with NRC's education programmes to assist children to access the documentation necessary to enrol in school or to take exams. ICLA also works with Shelter and Camp Management programmes on security of tenure and land registration, for which identity documents may be a pre-requisite.
5. NRC’s ICLA work with Syrian refugees in Jordan2
There are particular civil documentation challenges relating to children who were born in Syria but whose families fled to Jordan before registering their births. Families cannot obtain birth certificates from Jordanian authorities for children born in Syria; their only legal recourse in Jordan is to attempt to register the child’s birth at the Syrian Embassy in Amman. Because visiting the Syrian embassy is
not a viable option for many Syrian refugees, some families have used alternative ways to register births, such as through relatives who are still in Syria.
Several families NRC works with in Jordan have an unregistered child born in Syria. One father described how his wife gave birth to their son in Homs’ main hospital in 2013 as it was being bombed. The family fled the hospital immediately after the birth without receiving a birth notification. The husband said that it would have been too dangerous for him to go the Syrian Civil Status Department to register the child. After the family arrived in Jordan, the mother attempted to register their son at the Jordanian Civil Status Department, but officials accused her of trying to commit fraud and threatened to arrest her. The child, who has asthma, cannot access subsidised public healthcare in Jordan and the parents have resorted to taking him to a pharmacy for medical care. The family has attempted to locate the Syrian doctor who delivered the child to obtain the birth notification, but they do not know where he is or whether he is alive. In another case, a couple received a birth notification from the midwife who delivered their child at home, but left the notification in Syria after their house was bombed. The child’s grandfather observed, “In this situation, you’re not able to think about bringing a birth notification – you just run.”
NRC assists Syrian refugees in Jordan by providing information on the importance of birth registration and on the steps that parents need to take to be able to register a new birth. NRC also supports refugees to acquire other documents such as Ministry of Interior cards, for legal stay in Jordan, and marriage certificates, both pre-requisites for parents to be able to register their new-born child in Jordan.
6. NRC’s ICLA work in Myanmar
NRC's Myanmar programme was established in 2008 with the aim of assisting the most vulnerable conflict-affected displaced in the Southeast of Myanmar and in Thailand. Known as the “longest running civil war,” internal conflicts led by ethnic groups struggling for power have afflicted Myanmar since the country’s independence in 1948. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and, despite elections in 2015 ushering in a new era of democratic reforms, there continues to be open armed conflict in Rakhine, Kachin and Northern Shan. In the Southeast of the country, most ethnic armed organisations signed the November 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement, however more than a hundred thousand refugees remain in Thailand and carefully monitor security and political developments in their country of origin.
In Myanmar the lack of proper identification documents is a problem that affects more than 10 million people. According to the 2014 Union of Myanmar official census, more than 19,000 people in Kayah State (Southeast Myanmar) lacked such documents, the majority in rural areas. The actual number is estimated to be higher, as those living in areas controlled by non-state actors and ethnic armed organisations did not participate in the census. Basic identification papers are often taken for granted, but these documents regulate access to services such as education, social welfare and land registration. They also allow individuals to engage in public life and partake in decision-making. Consequently, those who lack identity documents can be at an increased risk of violence, particularly those in already volatile situations such as women passing through check points or border crossings. In addition, legal identity documents are essential for achieving lasting solutions for returning refugees and displaced persons.
Faced with these challenges, and in cooperation with authorities, NRC has since 2012 helped facilitate the issuing of ID cards, through mobile One Stop Service (OSS) centres in South East Myanmar. Through this initiative, NRC visits hard to reach rural areas to assist the government in providing identification documents, and to offer information and counselling services on the rights of the ID card
holders. The project targets conflict affected communities, prioritising the displaced and paying increasing attention to the needs of persons at risk of statelessness. NRC is currently strengthening its advocacy component in order to promote law and policy reforms to the current framework, based on the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, where ethnicity is the primary criteria for acquiring citizenship and different categories of citizenship lead to unreasonable differences in rights protection (naturalised citizens cannot access higher education in equal terms or stand for political office) which affects displaced persons and refugees. Indeed, a portion of the refugees currently in Thailand do not belong to the recognised 135 ethnic groups and thus would face the risk of discrimination upon return. As a first step, NRC is advocating with the government removing references to ethnicity and religion from ID Cards. In all, since 2012, more than 431,708 beneficiaries have received ID cards as a result of NRC´s One Stop Services.
Case study: Daw Ri Sue
Daw Ri Sue is a 56 year old farmer who lives in a conflict affected area in Myanmar, where there has been ongoing displacement for decades. Only two of her nine children are enrolled in school. She wanted to get a valid identity document (ID) so that her younger children could register in school. However, despite having travelled to another town to make an application with the relevant authorities, she was unsuccessful because she did not understand the procedure sufficiently well to bring all the necessary documents. Transportation costs mean that obtaining documentation can be even more challenging for those living in remote areas.
Daw Ri Sue then attended an NRC One Stop Service centre in Hoya village, about one hour by foot from her village “Upon arrival, I attended an information session and on the same day, I was able to get an ID card, free of charge”, she says. Recently, two of her children have also managed to obtain national identity documents. Daw Ri Sue stresses the importance of having these documents to access basic rights, and will urge the rest of her children to apply.
1 NRC currently has ICLA programmes in the following countries: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. For more information see: https://www.nrc.no/what-we-do/activities-in-the-field/icla/.
2 The case study is extracted from NRC’s report ‘Registering Rights: Syrian Refugees and the Documentation of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Jordan’ (October 2015), p 16, available at https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/registraring-rights/ ; For further information on NRC’s assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, please see the following NRC reports ‘Birth Registration Update: The Challenges of Birth Registration in Lebanon for Refugees from Syria’ (January 2015) available at https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/the-challenges-of-birth-registration-in-lebanon-for-refugees-from-syria/; ‘Update on Birth Administration for Refugees from Syria’ (January 2014) available at https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/update-on-birth-registration-for-refugees-from-syria/; ‘Update on Marriage Registration for Refugees from Syria’ (July 2016), available at https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/update-on-marriage-registration-for-refugees-from-syria-july-2016/; and ‘Update on Marriage Registration for Refugees from Syria’ (June2014) available at https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/update-on-marriage-registration-for-refugees-from-syria/.