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The invisible children

Mirjam Gehrke / nmDecember 12, 2013

The birth of every third child under the age of five has never been officially registered, a new UNICEF report says. These minors often have no access to education or health care, and are easy prey for human traffickers.

Two children sit on a dirty mattress in Honduras Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Around 230 million children worldwide have never had their births officially registered, according to a new study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The number is equivalent to the entire population of Indonesia.

"These children are not counted, in the truest sense of the word," said Jürgen Schübelin from the German-based children's rights organization, Kindernothilfe. "Those who aren't counted have no rights."

Children without birth certificates are often excluded from the school system, health care and social security, UNICEF warned in the report, which was presented in New York to mark the Fund's 67th birthday.

Identity is a human right

"Fundamental rights are being violated in countries where all newborns, all children and adolescents, and all adults, can't be identified and given their relevant documents," said Schübelin. "Being registered is a human right."

A classroom at a school in a Nairobi slum, Kenya Photo: DW/Andreas Stahl
Children who aren't registered can't get an educationImage: DW/A. Stahl

This right is also enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7 stipulates that every child "must be entered into a register immediately after birth." In addition to the right to a name, each child also has "the right to a nationality." The convention has been ratified by every UN member state, with the exception of the United States and Somalia.

According to the UNICEF study, the official reporting of births has been grossly neglected particularly in Africa, as well as in certain regions of Asia and Latin America. African countries make up eight of the 10 countries with the worst reporting rates. Fewer than one in 10 births was registered in Somalia, Liberia and Ethiopia. And only between 14 percent and 28 percent of newborns were registered in Zambia, Chad, Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yemen and Pakistan were also counted among the ten countries with the lowest reporting rate.

Struggling with poverty and discrimination

"Poverty is the most common reason why children aren't registered," Schübelin told DW. "This is because people in rural areas and in slums in big cities often don't have easy access to the registry offices."

Jürgen Schübelin from Kindernothilfe Photo: Kindernothilfe
Jürgen Schübelin says unregistered children are denied basic rightsImage: Kindernothilfe

For parents in rural areas, registering a child often means a long journey to the next town - something many families don't have time or money for. "The number of children who don't have a birth certificate is significantly higher in areas with a high percentage of indigenous population," Schübelin said. In many cases even the parents don't have identification documents because they often face language barriers if none of the indigenous languages are spoken in the state administration.

In Paraguay, for example, many people from indigenous minorities don't have a birth certificate or a personal identity card. Since 2012, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) has been supporting a project to expand the reach of the reporting system. As part of the program, it's working to train staff in the public system to be able to communicate with different ethnic groups. The GIZ previously supported a similar project in Peru.

Easy prey for traffickers

Unregistered children are particularly vulnerable in emergency and disaster situations, such as the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or after the earthquake in Haiti in January 2012.

"In Haiti we found that children who had been traumatized by the earthquake and also by the loss of family members were at high risk of being kidnapped," said Schübelin. "Immediately after the earthquake, North American organizations tried to get children out of the country and to exploit them through human trafficking channels."

Attempts were made at the time to try and protect children, Schübelin added. Child protection centers were set up after the earthquake, and children were given name tags to hang around their necks. "Just the fact that these children were part of a publicly visible initiative, where there were people who took care of them, meant they were protected," he said.

According to UNICEF, it's especially important to recognize the reasons why families don't register their children. It said problems like excessive registration fees, ignorance about rights, cultural barriers, and the fear of discrimination for religious or ethnic reasons, should be tackled. The Fund also emphasized the need for simple solutions, such as those implemented in Kosovo and Uganda. There, parents can register their newborns within a few minutes using a mobile platform on their mobile phone - a process that used to take several months.