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ASEAN states work towards universal birth registration at Bangkok workshop

Delegates from South-east Asian countries discuss birth registration as a tool to prevent statelessness and improving access to basic rights.


BANGKOK, Thailand, December 10 (UNHCR) – A number of South-east Asian countries met recently to jointly explore ways to achieve universal birth registration in order to help prevent statelessness and improve access to basic rights including for vulnerable groups such as asylum-seekers and refugees.

On Friday, civil registration and other officials from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attended a Regional Workshop on Good Practices in Birth Registration organized in Bangkok by UNHCR and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Delegates came from Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Viet Nam, as well as from the ASEAN Secretariat, UNICEF, UNESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) and Plan International. They joined AICHR representatives or their designates from several ASEAN member states, as well as UNHCR staff working on statelessness issues in South-east Asian countries.

“We are pleased that AICHR has taken a lead on addressing birth registration in South-east Asia,” said Tom Vargas, UNHCR’s Senior Regional Protection Advisor in Bangkok. “Birth registration is one of the most important measures to protect a child’s right to a nationality. It is also an important tool to protect people of concern to UNHCR.”

In itself, birth registration does not grant nationality to a child. But a birth certificate can be useful to prove one’s nationality under the law by providing two key pieces of information – where the child was born and the parents’ names. It is thus a critical tool in preventing and reducing statelessness.

“The first document everyone needs is a birth certificate,” said Representative of Thailand to the AICHR, Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree. She told the story of someone who fell through the cracks as he was born in Thailand in 1985 to parents from Myanmar. “He grew up without any documents and is afraid to approach the authorities. He said, ‘I’m a human being. I do not have any papers but I exist.’”

The one-day workshop brought officials together to exchange good practices on birth registration and to learn from each others’ experiences.

Delegates from Myanmar described how the civil registration system is based within the national healthcare system, and highlighted the need to ensure that legislation relating to birth registration met international standards that Myanmar subscribed to.

Recognizing the importance of having a strong legal framework, Thailand amended its Civil Registration Act in 2008. Under the revised law, all children born in the country are entitled to birth registration even if their parents are not Thai nationals – an important step to prevent statelessness, for example amongst the children of refugees.

“The current Thai policy is very broad and inclusive,” said Pittaya Wongkraisritong from the Registration and ID Cards Promotion Division of Thailand’s Ministry of Interior. “We have to make every life count and make sure no one is left behind.”

The Philippines and Cambodia shared their experiences in free mobile birth registration for people in remote locations, campaigns that have raised birth registration levels significantly in southern Philippines’ Mindanao area and increased Cambodia’s birth registration levels from less under 5 per cent to more than 90 per cent in less than 10 years.

The use of technology such as mobile phones and integrated digital databases is simplifying the process. “We hope to work with governments to start using mobile handheld devices in birth registration in order to reach the unreachable,” said Maja Cubarrubia, the Director of Plan International in Thailand. “The use of technology to register births can potentially help our work become more efficient and effective.”

As a follow up to the workshop, participants agreed to explore the development of a set of benchmarks and indicators, on the basis of the regional good practices identified, that can be used to assess  progress towards realizing universal birth registration.

“These benchmarks and indicators can help member states and AICHR to ensure continued steps are taken towards the registration of the birth of all children, particularly vulnerable groups such as asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons,” said Nicholas Oakeshott, UNHCR’s Regional Protection Officer focusing on Statelessness.

There was also consensus on the need to set up a network of civil registrars and relevant government officials and international experts to continue sharing good practices on achieving universal birth registration.