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       Measurement & Human Rights


“Children without a State: A Human Rights Challenge”

Sunday-Monday, May 4-5, 2008

Conference organized with the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights in collaboration with the Swiss Foreign Ministry and Swiss Consulate, Boston



Carr Center > Measurement & Human Rights > Projects > Do Children Count?

Children without a State: A Human Rights Challenge

Birth Registration and Irregular Migration

View Conference Agenda

The problem of inadequate documentation

The impact of inadequate documentation on children is an under-researched but emerging issue in the area of policy and child protection. Proof of identity, legal status, and nationality are increasingly key aspects of human security as irregular migration and concerns regarding global security and anti-terrorism simultaneously increase.

These factors severely affect many populations of marginalized children, both in terms of their access to state-provided services and entitlements, and in terms of their long-term immigration security. In some cases, the absence of documented proof of identity can lead to prolonged deprivations of liberty or deportation; in others, it can affect access to education or health care or a nationality. In all cases, the absence of a regular status and proof of that status have potentially serious and long-lasting consequences for children’s human rights.

Birth registration

A fundamental and universally approved avenue to appropriate documentation is birth registration, the process by which a child’s birth is recorded in an official register. Birth registration is a necessary precondition of birth certification; in countries with nationality laws based on "ius soli,” it is a sufficient condition for receipt of nationality. But even in ius sanguinis countries, where nationality can only be transmitted by descent, birth registration is fundamental as a basis for individual claims and for domestic and international public policy. It provides the basis for individual human rights and serves as a legal prerequisite for civil and political access. Moreover, it is also an empirical prerequisite for economic and social planning.

However, approximately only one in every three children born in the world never has his or her birth registered.

Surprisingly, the issue is not a priority for actors concerned with children’s rights. Indeed, birth registration (BR) is an under-recognized and under-valued procedure. Though birth registration is seen as routine in many countries of the world, it is virtually non-existent in some and intermittent and inconsistent in others. Even in countries where birth registration is taken as a given, including industrialized migration destination states, evidence exists that new populations of children born to irregular migrants find themselves stateless due to non-registration.

Statelessness and undocumented child migrants

Irregular status also affects child migrants, or citizen children living in "mixed status" migrant families. Some of the effects, such as difficulty in accessing asylum procedures or family reunification, have been quite extensively documented. Other effects are only just emerging, and as the numbers of affected children grow, the problems become more manifest. Among the under-addressed but increasingly key issues are:

(a) Migrant children's access to education, shelter and health care. This is a concern for both unaccompanied and accompanied children. Indeed, there is some evidence that accompanied children, with parents fearing immigration raids or arrest, or insisting on exploitative labor by the child, may fare worse than their unaccompanied counterparts.

(b) Identification of child victims of trafficking. This problem is acutely felt by border and immigration officials, as well as by welfare and advocacy agencies. Some of the problems are procedural, but many are conceptual and require a close examination of the definition of "exploitation" and an interrogation of some fundamental child rights concepts such as "best interest."

(c) Acceptable child work vs. unacceptable child labor - who decides? A growing number of child migrants is crossing borders to work. As globalization shrinks distances, separates families, and makes new imaginary life-styles real, large numbers of destitute children and youth choose to abandon poverty at home in favor of opportunity abroad. Acute issues arise about the alternatives to exploitation and in some cases, even servitude (both sexual and labor).

Research and policy challenges

Birth registration and irregular migration raise many overlapping research and policy questions and question the simple assumption that all children are born "persons before the law" and citizens, endowed with rights and entitlements, and owed "the best humanity has to offer." These issues also present critical challenges for legal and social protection and rights promotion.

Further reading:

  • UNICEF (2005) The 'Rights' Start to Life: A Statistical Analysis of Birth Registration, UNICEF 2005;

  • UNICEF (2001), Progress since the World Summit for Children, ‘Levels of Birth Registration, 2000 Estimates,’ UNICEF, New York.

  • Laura van Waas, "The Children of Irregular Migrants: A Stateless Generation?" 25 (3) Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights (2007) 437-458.
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