News / Asia

Asian Countries Urged to Improve Child Registrations

FILE - Newly born babies receive vaccines at a hospital in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
FILE - Newly born babies receive vaccines at a hospital in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

An estimated 135 million children under the age of five in the Asia-Pacific region have not been registered by any government agency. That leaves them unable to claim national identities needed for access to rights and critical services. A major push is about to commence to get such children, and those of all ages, a legal identity.

Despite the advent of digital technology and advanced communications, too many people in the Asia-Pacific region still live and die without leaving an official trace.

Senior government ministers from the region will be asked in November to commit to giving recognition to every child, starting with registering their births, as part of a push for universal civil registration and vital statistics.

The ministers are to convene in Bangkok later this year.

The child protection regional advisor for the U.N.’s Children's Fund (UNICEF), Stephen Blight, said in this era, the lack of having a legal identity can create significant challenges as early as adolescence.

“Increasingly in the modern world, you need to prove your age and you need to prove your identity in order for opportunities to be open to you,” said Blight.

These include obtaining such important documents as passports and driver’s licenses, getting a job in the formal sector or opening a bank account. A lack of identity nowadays can be a barrier to obtaining something as simple and essential as a mobile phone.

Jonathan Marskell, a statistics consultant for the UN’s Economic and Statistics Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), said the children of unregistered parents are more likely to be unregistered than those of registered parents.

“And so it creates a cycle of invisibility or under-registration. And this affects in particular populations that might be on the margins of society already,” said Marskell.

Recording personal information not only gives the registrants access to government services, it helps ensure their basic rights. It also provides valuable insight into demographics and the health of the population.

Even accurate records of deaths are important. Understanding why and where people are dying helps fight disease and infant mortality. But, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), nine out of ten people in the Asia-Pacific region live in countries without reliable death statistics.

A regional protection officer for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Nicholas Oakeshott, said more governments are recognizing the value of comprehensive and accurate data.

“You can see a momentum developing here where some of these obstacles that have got in the way of the registration, particularly of births of minority children or children living in hard to reach areas, they're being overcome,” said Oakeshott.

The director of the statistics division at UNESCAP, Anis Chowdhury, is making an appeal to the media in developing countries to spread the word.

“Many people don't know that they have the right [to registration]. And that is an issue media can help us to create the awareness,” said Chowdhury.

More than 100 developing countries globally still do not have functioning systems to support efficient recording of births and other major life events. The situation is acute in Asia, which is home to a large portion of the world’s 15 million stateless people.

“For too long these people they’ve been out of sight, out of mind,” said Hatai Limprayoonyong of the non-governmental organization Plan International, which is a partner for the upcoming government ministers conference organized by UNESCAP.

Other partners are the Asian Development Bank, the International Organization for Migration, UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO.

U.N. officials speaking to reporters in Bangkok on Thursday acknowledged that in too many places, corruption and lack of adequate systems and personnel still prevent people from being able to register themselves and their children.

The four-day meeting of senior government ministers on civil registration and vital statistics to be held in Bangkok starting November 24 is intended to spur action to change the status quo.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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