Migrant registration programs targets children
December 26 - January 1, 2012
MAE SOT – For decades, children of Myanmar refugees and migrants in Thailand could not obtain an official birth certificate, vital to access healthcare and education. Even though legislation entitling them to a formal identity has been in place since 2008, registering and coaxing forth the undocumented has been “painstaking”, according to community groups.
“Birth registration is the basic fundamental right of any human being. If you don’t have birth registration, you lose all your rights,” said Naing Min, project director for the community-based organisation, Committee for Protection and Promotion of Child Rights (CPPCR), in Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border.
With no proof of identity or age, those without birth certificates are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking. When they grew older, their troubles are compounded: unable to get any form of identification, they cannot open a bank account or apply for a formal job.
Following the amendment in 2008 to Thailand’s Civil Registration Act of 1991, all children born in the country are entitled to birth registration and government-issued birth certificates, regardless of their parents’ legal status.
In Burmese refugee camps, more systematic birth registration – coordinated by camp and government authorities with assistance from NGOs and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – began in September 2010, but only a fraction has been documented.
The law has taken time to be implemented, in part because of the slow pace of assigning and training government staff. It has also been a challenge to register Myanmar who cannot provide any proof of identity whatsoever – not registered at birth, they have been unable to get any identity papers later in life.
“The law in the Civil Registration Act, as amended in 2008, is retroactive. It went back for all children born in Thailand, so with Myanmar refugees in the camps, you could be dealing with 25 years of birth registrations,” said James Lynch, Thailand’s representative for UNHCR.
About 1600 people – mostly newborns – have been registered in nine refugee camps along the border housing an estimated 150,000 people, including some 60,000 unregistered refugees, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an umbrella group of organisations providing services for migrants and refugees.
The next group to register is children born to Myanmar refugees between 2008 and September 2010, and then further back to 1984 when the first major waves of refugees, fleeing violence in Myanmar, poured into Thailand.
“I’m not sure of exact numbers [left to be registered], but if you go back 25 years, it’s a painstaking task, but an important one,” Lynch said.
Each year, about 5 percent of children born in Thailand – about 40,000 babies primarily from poor families, ethnic minorities or migrants – are not registered at birth, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“The issue with the unregistered camp population is that they could report to the district office, but they fear if they’re not registered and they go to report, they might be deported, so they may be reluctant,” Lynch said.
Unregistered Myanmar refugees cannot get birth certificates for their children through camp authorities and face the same problem as migrants.
“They have to go to the district office, but practically, this is difficult because they have no permission to leave the camp, and if they do leave the camp, then they can be arrested and deported, so it is a Catch-22 classic,” said Joel Harding, senior protection officer for the NGO International Rescue Committee.
It is a problem UNHCR and other agencies are working with the government to fix, but providing birth registration for even registered Myanmar refugees – there are about 100,000 – is taking time.
When Ma Lay, 27, gave birth in August 2011 to her third son at Mae Tao Clinic, a health centre for Myanmar refugees and migrants in Thailand, she immediately registered him. Her two older sons, six and four, were born in Myanmar, and like her and her husband, have no papers.
“For the two boys, there have been no problems yet, but for me and especially my husband, sometimes on our way to work, we run into the police and get arrested,” said Ma Lay. “It makes me feel better if my baby is delivered and registered here, for my baby’s future.”
Some 200 babies born each month at Mae Tao Clinic are registered on site.
CPPCR now encourages people to get Thai civil birth registration, yet still continues unofficial registrations for those who do not in the hopes such documentation will help them access education and health services as well as claim land and inheritance if they return to Myanmar.
“Some are afraid to go to the office or to ask for a recommendation letter from the village chief, because they are here illegally. They don’t know their rights,” Naing Min said.
Over the past eight years, CPPCR has unofficially registered 180,000 children.
“When there was no system to recognise the children born in Thailand, we collected the information, so that when there is true democracy [in Myanmar], we can make claims for their [Myanmar] citizenship,” Naing Min said. – IRIN