South African bishops warn children w/o birth certificates face life on ‘fringes of society’

South African bishops warn children w/o birth certificates face life on ‘fringes of society’

Young boys play soccer on a dusty field at Ramaphosa informal settlement, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (Credit: Themba Hadebe/AP.)

Children of migrants in southern Africa are in danger of living on the fringes of society due to a lack of proper papers registering their birth.

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Children of migrants in southern Africa are in danger of living on the fringes of society due to a lack of proper papers registering their birth.

The Southern African Bishops’ Conference made the statement as Africa marked the third Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Day on August 10.

“The Church wish to encourage member States and governments to increase their capacity of civil registration systems as that will hopefully ascertain that there is no exclusion of any human person from accessing their fundamental and human rights,” the bishops wrote in a message.

A 2019 UNICEF Report on birth registration indicates that across the globe, there are 166 million children under the age of 5 whose births have not been recorded. The same report further says that 87 percent of these unregistered children are found in South Asia and in the Sub-Saharan Africa Region.

This year’s event is marked as COVID-19 spreads across the continent, which has made it hard for many families to register births and deaths with the civil authorities. The theme of the day was: “Civil Registration and Vital Statistics: An Essential Service for Monitoring and Mitigating the Impact of Emergencies.”

“It is a pertinent theme that reminds governments and member states that reliable and accurate figures or statistics can make an enormous difference in times of emergencies and calamities or pandemics like COVID-19. They also ensure that authorities have essential information necessary for planning, implementation and monitoring,” the bishops’ statement said.

Although South Africa is a leader in the region for civil registration, the bishops noted that undocumented migrants are often left out.

They called on governments to “ascertain proper universal birth registration irrespective of nationality or legal status of parents “as a way of mitigating such undesirable consequences.”

Sister Maria de Lurdes Lodi Rissini, the National Coordinator for the Caritas/Migrants and Refugee Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference told Crux in practice, legal status and documentation are required in order to register the birth of children in South Africa.

“If a child’s birth is not registered, he or she stands the risks of being stateless should he or she be abandoned or orphaned; a child whose birth is not registered cannot access services such as education, health, social grants and protection from abuse, violence, exploitation, trafficking, child labor,” she said.

“A birth certificate is a passport to life. It is the first document that gives you access and also can confirm a child’s nationality.”

What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Rissini.

Crux: What is the situation of civil status registration in South Africa, particularly the birth registration of children?

Rissini: In Africa, South Africa has one of the highest rates of birth registration for children before the age of 1. The South African government tracks birth registration of children under 1, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals targets. However, in practice, legal status and documentation are required in order to register the birth. Children born to undocumented parents cannot easily get birth registration. Most vulnerable are children born to undocumented migrants.

Section 28 of the constitution of South Africa states that every child has a right to a name and a nationality at birth. Provisions in the Regulations to the Birth and Deaths Registrations Act that require legal status and documentation have been declared unconstitutional.

The legal framework for birth registration in South Africa is under the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1992, amended by the Birth and Death Registration Amendment Act, 2010 (Act No. 18 of 2010). The requirements for birth registration are the identification of the child’s father, the identification of the child’s mother and forenames and surname of the child.

South Africa is a well-organized country for civil registration and is one of the few African countries producing vital statistics from the civil registration system. It records statistics on vital events such as births, deaths, marriages and divorces. The Department of Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) produces annual reports on recorded live births, marriages and divorces as well as mortality and causes of death, based on civil registration data.

However, in our experience in the pastoral working in the Church, very often we find South Africans without being registered and we believe it needs a lot of improvement to be done.

In South Africa, according to our experience in the pastoral work, is the child is lucky if it is born from a mother with documentation: It is easy for the government to register the child. But if the mother is undocumented than the child starts to have problems related to documents.

What are the consequences of not recording a child’s birth?

If a child’s birth is not registered, he or she stands the risks of being stateless should he or she be abandoned or orphaned; a child whose birth is not registered cannot access services such as education, health, social grants and protection from abuse, violence, exploitation, trafficking, child labor. A birth certificate is a passport to life. It is the first document that gives you access and also can confirm a child’s nationality.

The consequences for not recording child births are many: To start, not having access to any essential legal documents, like being able to secure their identity, nationality and civil rights and access to social services. This causes the person to become totally vulnerable and stateless.

If the person doesn’t have birth registration, it makes the person invisible, without protection for their human rights. This can bring many challenges to the country, too, because the government can’t estimate the annual changes in population size and structure, and for planning and monitoring social programs, such as health, education and population intervention.

Without registration the person cannot contribute to government taxes for a more sustainable and developed country. The well-functioning civil registration and vital statistics systems are crucial for creating inclusive societies, ensuring proper delivery of public services, and realizing and protecting basic human rights of all individuals. This is an essential administrative system in modern society, and it is not acceptable to find any person without the rights of being included in the civil registration.

What factors could constrain government capacity to register all births in the country?

Human resources would be a factor, if the government does not have the right number of people to carry out birth registration or if those employed do not have the skills to carry out birth registration. Though there is legislation in place for birth registration, practice and policy see a lot of children being excluded.

The civil registration in South Africa recently is registered with extraordinary improvements, however there is still room for more improvement. Some of the studies say that the South African history of birth registration (including both current and late registrations) increased from under 25 percent to 95 percent between 1991 and 2012.

South Africa has had to overcome several obstacles as:

– The apartheid system that stratified South African citizens according to race inhibited people’s trust, especially among Black South Africans in any form of government registration, including birth registration.

– The lack of access to official facilities to register a child’s birth, especially in remote and rural areas as well as poorer regions, needed to be addressed. There was inadequate infrastructure in place to reach those who are hard to reach.

– The lack of awareness surrounding the importance of birth registration and legal identity for children, notably among less educated mothers, was another obstacle to increasing birth registration in South Africa.

– When a foreign national goes to the hospital to deliver their babies, the hospital has to issue a document for the mother to register the child at Home Affairs. On many occasions, the mother reports to the Church that the nurses didn’t want to give any papers. It is not so clear if the nurse has a xenophobic attitude toward foreign nationals or if the mother doesn’t have the money to pay for hospital expenses.

How do you think the COVID-19 has been making it harder for civil status registration to be carried out, and how can the availability of vital statistics help countries deal with emergencies?

COVID-19 has impacted on birth registration in that undocumented mothers are unable to access the system; asylum seekers too are unable to register the birth of their children because before a birth can be registered, the mother’s asylum permit must be verified by the Refugees Reception Office. TheRROs are currently closed. When the government declared a nationwide lockdown, the offices were all closed. However, the government declared the extension period for the registration and renewal of documents.

There are also reduced services due to COVID-19 and reduced human mobility to different services.

How particularly hard is it for migrants and refugee children to get registered?

It is not a problem if the parents are holders of proper documents and are “legally” in the country.

However, there are various factors making it as a challenge:

–  The law in South Africa gives the mother the right to register the child under her name. When the mother is a foreigner and is undocumented it is impossible to register the child.

–  If the mother is foreign and the father is a South African national, there is a need to do the DNA test, and in the country only 5 places can do the test. Another problem is financial and/or marital issues.

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