Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Europe's Birth Registration Stumbling Blocks

Last week, the European Network on Statelessness posted a guest blog written by yours truly. I'm re-posting it here for my own records, but definitely go check out ENS! 
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It is well-established that one of the best ways of preventing statelessness is by ensuring universal birth registration of all children, regardless of the status of their parents. As Plan International notes, “registration means proof- not only of identity, but of existence.”  Even in countries where being born on the territory of the state does not confer citizenship this documentation can be crucial to later gaining nationality, and is a first step towards ensuring basic human rights.

For instance, in some countries, citizenship is granted on the basis of having been born there and then living there for some continuous amount of time. (For an example of such a policy, see the UK.) In that case, proof of birth is a crucial step in the process. In addition, countries that have ratified the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness have the obligation to grant citizenship to children born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless (under Article 1.) In this case as well, birth registration is a crucial piece of evidence for accessing rights- particularly when the citizenship in question is not granted until many years after the birth.

Unfortunately, many countries in Europe have “stumbling blocks” to birth registration for non-citizens or persons lacking complete documentation. What I mean by that is, although they allow for undocumented or stateless people to register in theory, in practice they have bureaucratic procedures established which make it difficult- or in some cases, expensive or impossible- for people lacking documents to register. As UNCHR points out, these “inadequate birth registration” measures may be one of the diverse causes of statelessness in Europe.

Here are some examples of policies which may pose a barrier for stateless or undocumented persons in registering their children at birth:
  • Requiring extensive documentation: Most countries have a list of documents to be presented at the time of birth registration for proof of the identity of the parents. When this requirement is mandatory, it makes it impossible for people lacking those documents to register.  Some countries will carry out an investigation or require court intervention when documents are missing, which adds additional barriers to the process. A better practice is to allow for alternative forms of proof of identity, such as a sworn statement, the statement of witnesses or identity information from humanitarian documents.
  • Requiring expensive translations of documents: If a country requires translation of identity documents prior to registration, this can become a hidden financial barrier for indigent individuals.
  • Linking Registration to Immigration:  If a lack of proper immigration documents at the time of birth registration can be held as a reason for parents to be referred to immigration enforcement, this may prove an impossible choice for parents wishing to register their children who may be at risk for deportation.
  • Fees or punishments for late registration: When countries have strict time requirements and pose fees for late registration, even within the first year, this can have a “chilling effect” on parents who did not manage to register their children on time, who may decide not to do so later for lack of funds.
(More specific information on birth registration policies can be found at the website of the International Commission on Civil Status and in Statelessness Mapping Projects sponsored by UNHCR.)

It is not clear whether these “stumbling blocks” have impacted a large number of people trying to register their children (more research would be required to determine that.) However, as UNHCR well documents, there are thousands of asylum-seekers, IDP’s, and stateless persons in Europe and the number is growing as refugee crises in the Middle East and flows from Southeast Europe increase. These people, like any others, will continue to have children and need to be able to register them without facing barriers from complicated birth registration laws. European countries would do well to face this situation proactively and ensure that universal birth registration is available to all persons on their territory, regardless of the immigration status or lack of documents of the parents. If not, the potential is there for leaving many children at risk of statelessness.

Countries must ensure that their birth registration practices provide an opportunity for all children born in the country to be registered, and make the process as streamlined and barrier-free as possible for families, regardless of their legal status. This is required not only by common sense (isn’t it best for everyone to know how many babies are being born in the land?) but also by international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states ensure birth registration and the right to an identity under their laws.

It is understandable that some European states do not wish to enable fraud by making the birth registration process easy to manipulate. However, the human rights issues at stake are just too important –and state obligations too high- to allow fear of misbehavior by a few to dictate policy for all.