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UN Focus on Data Gaps from Unregistered Births

  • Ron Corben

Tens of millions of people living in the developing world are unregistered at birth - meaning there is no legal acknowledgement of their existence. The United Nations says such unregistered people not only have uncertain access to health care and schooling, but are also more vulnerable to human rights violations. A U.N.-backed meeting in Bangkok is discussing how to address the problem.

The two-day United Nations-sponsored conference brings together statisticians and economists from some 50 countries as well as the World Health Organization, and other U.N. and civil society groups, in a bid to make up for the shortfalls in civil registrations.

Noeleen Heyzer, U.N. undersecretary, says registrations are essential for safeguarding basic human rights and measuring the effectiveness of public policy.

“Unless people have a legal identity, they are not going to be taken seriously in government policies, they are not counted, they are excluded and people who are stateless, people without papers unfortunately do not have human rights as far as the state is concerned and they’re not accountable," explained Heyzer. "By making sure that people are registered at birth that they are cared for, their voices are obviously heard.”

Despite modern technology that makes creating and tracking registrations easier, the U.N.’s Children’s Fund says in 2011 just under half of births in Asia - excluding China - were registered.

Haishan Fu, director of statistics from the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, says the paucity of reliable data poses a challenge for regional policy makers.

“Some estimates in the region have shown that one third to two-thirds of the children in this region are not properly registered. So, clearly for them accessing school opportunities are a huge issue. And, people who don’t really have the legal documents that they should have establishing their legal identity that they fully are able to access gainful employment,” Haishan said.

For the U.N., the issue about insufficient data puts at risk the credibility of the 2015 targeted Millennium Development Goals. Goals such as eradicating extreme poverty, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, combating HIV/Aids and other diseases, as well environmental sustainability, all depend on accurate population counts.

Trevor Sutton, deputy statistician from the Australian Bureau of Statistics says data are essential to clearly measure social and economic progress.

“If you want to actually understand whether you have real progress on these Millennium Development Goals you really got to have civil registration statistics in place," he said. "It’s in everybody’s interest in the region, including Australia, to ensure that we build those systems to the point where we can actually measure progress in all societies in the region in a reliable way - I mean that really is quite critical.”

Sutton says confidence in the region’s data is essential to better target aid and assistance in areas across the health and social sectors to support further international donor support in key targeted areas.

The meeting will prepare a strategic plan to be presented to member governments in a further bid to overcome current shortcomings through faulty or incomplete data.