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UNICEF Cites Danger of Unregistered Births - 2001-12-25

The United Nations Children's Fund says millions of children around the world have no birth certificate. The organization says children who are not registered at birth often lack vital legal protections, which can affect their whole lives.

UNICEF says many people do not realize how important it is to register a child at birth. It says birth registration guarantees a child's right to a name and nationality. It says a child who does not have a birth certificate is denied a whole range of rights.

UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says children who are not registered may not have access to schooling, immunization and health care. She says these children can be denied legal protection against exploitation and abuse, including child labor, child trafficking, early marriage and military recruitment.

"There is not a proper understanding of the impact of registering children at birth," said Ms. Belmonte. "Every year, one-third of all births go unregistered; that is 40 million babies around the world. Forty million people that are unaccounted for and when we are trying to do anything in terms of servicing them, they do not have a voice and they do not show up on registers anywhere."

UNICEF notes the number of unregistered births varies from region to region, but it is particularly acute in Southeast Asia. In India, for example, it shows as many as one out of every three births goes unregistered.

UNICEF says civil registration systems lag in Sub-Saharan Africa because of underdevelopment. In some countries, it says the leftover structures of colonial governments, which often did not register the black population, have impeded progress on registration.

Ms. Belmonte says the United Nations hopes a census in Afghanistan will tell it more about the health and education of the country's children after more than two decades of war.

"In the case of Afghanistan, one of the things that is set out in the Bonn agreement is that the United Nations take part in a census in the country. The last census done in Afghanistan was years ago. I believe at least 15 years ago," she said. "And when we are talking about education and when we are talking about the health of children, it is good to have reliable data about the children we are talking about and what ages they are."

UNICEF says children in urban areas are more likely to be registered than those in rural areas.

It finds children often are not registered because of discrimination on political or ethnic grounds. It cites the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe as a case in point.

It says poor families also may fail to register a birth because the fee required for this is beyond their means. UNICEF says national structures should be reinforced and bureaucratic processes simplified to make it easier for people to register their babies at birth.