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Statelessness: A new lease on life thanks to a birth certificate

News Stories, 3 November 2011

© UNHCR/S.Petit
Marina, the first person to receive her birth certificate from acting regional secretary Karon-Kader of the Philippines, proudly holds it alongside Kader and other newly registered people in Mindanao.

BARANGAY KUYA, Philippines, November 3 (UNHCR) Marina Verma is 38 years old, but feels like her life has just begun.

"I can now say that I am really who I am," she said minutes after becoming the first person in the southern Philippines' Mindanao Island to receive a birth certificate under a UNHCR-funded programme. By providing vital legal documents to indigenous people affected by the island's decades-long conflict, the UN refugee agency aims to keep them from becoming stateless.

"I have been refused a job, almost denied admission in school, and have been asked to prove my identity countless times all because I did not have a birth certificate," added the mother of seven children, who also now have birth certificates.

Armed with an official identity, this farmer's wife, a proud member of the indigenous Teduray community, is now overflowing with ambition: "The first thing that I will do with my birth certificate is apply for a job," Verma said. "I also want to go to school. And I want to help my fellow Teduray and become a member of the registration team."

A birth certificate is an essential document in the Philippines. It is the official record of name, parentage, nationality and other personal information; without one, many find it hard to get a job, education or social benefits.

"A birth certificate helps these marginalized indigenous communities assert their rights, even when they are forcibly displaced," said Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR's representative in the Philippines. "It also prevents them from becoming stateless. That is why this is a critical initiative for all of us."

The UNHCR-funded programme is being carried out by the government's Department of Social Welfare and Development of the Autonomous Region in predominantly Muslim Mindanao. A 15-member team travels long distances -- on road, by foot or by boat, and even along cliff paths to meet and register people in remote communities. By the end of 2011, the government plans to issue 60,000 certificates to indigenous people in Mindanao affected by the conflict.

Another government agency has helped thousands of people in these communities register their traditional marriages to keep women and children from being abandoned and cut off from government benefits.

"We dream that everyone in Mindanao has a birth certificate and will be recognized as a person," said Hadja Pombaen Karon-Kader, the official who handed the certificate to Verma at a ceremony where some 60 other indigenous people received their certificates. "After all, we all have the right to an identity."

By Tom Temprosa in Barangay Kuya, Philippines

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UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

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Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

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