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Nigerian Refugee Babies Given Birth Certificates at Cameroon Camp

Aissatou Jowel, left, lives with her children at the refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon. She says it would be too painful to return to her home in Nigeria, where Boko Haram rebels killed her husband. (Moki Edwin Kinzeka / VOA)

Aid agencies say Nigerian refugees give birth to 45 children every month at the Minawao refugee camp. Most of the children do not have official birth certificates. The government of Cameroon and the United Nations refugee agency [UNHCR] have begun issuing the children birth certificates with the hope the Nigerian government will accept them when the refugees return.

Isaak Luka, leader of the group of Nigerian refugees at the Minawao refugee camp in northern Cameroon, expressed gratitude to aid agencies for helping to establish birth certificates for their new born babies.

"We are very grateful because our children will benefit their civic rights," said Luka. "We thank the government of Cameroon and the head of the refugee agency partners and the different UN agencies, without neglecting non governmental organizations and the Cameroonian government for the attention they reserve for us."

Cameroon, UNHCR deal

Theophile Nguea Beina, the highest Cameroon government official in the area, said the Nigerian children started enjoying their rights to birth registration following negotiations between the government of Cameroon and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

"Legally a right of all children to have a birth certificate and a legal existence has been respected. Socially, these children are not responsible for what happened in their country," said Beina. "They are vulnerable and the government of the Republic [Cameroon] can not stay and see this situation persist."

Djerassem Mbaiorem, UNHCR's associate reporting officer, said the birth registration does not confer Cameroonian nationality upon the refugee children. But, he said, by establishing a legal record on where a refugee was born and who their parents are, the kids can claim their Nigerian nationality when they become adults.

He said wherever children are born, they have the right to be issued birth certificates, though if they are born in a country different from that of their parents, they have up to 18 years when they become adults to decide to be nationals of that country if the constitution of the country allows him to have the nationality based on the fact that he was born there.

Ombaneme Kaniset, a midwife at the refugee camp, said they prepare a birth declaration card for each newborn baby and forward it to UNHCR officials working in collaboration with other aid agencies and the government of Cameroon. She said an average of 45 babies are born each month.

Extraordinary circumstances

She said they direct some of the pregnant women who arrive at the refugee camp from Nigeria with emergency cases to specialists and then encourage them to follow up their prenatal consultation. She added that some of them have never had prenatal care and most of them do not have medical records since they are running from violence.

Some of the mothers do not know the importance of birth certificates. Benjamin Mambou of the International Emergency and Development Aid [IEDA relief] said they have been educating women who refuse to give their children names and those who refuse to collaborate with birth registration officers.

"We will continue to sensitize [educate] parents who didn't give us the names of their children, who didn't identify their children. We will do it or we make sure that will be done," said Mambou. "We will continue to sensitize [educate] parents and to assist them in what their children become in the future. They will go to their country, the government of Nigerian will take care of them but firstly here in Cameroon. We take care of them, we give them birth certificates and we assist them."

UNHCR's Bawoing Mahamat, who has also been encouraging mothers to register their children at birth, said when the situation in Nigeria stabilizes and the refugees agree to return, they will organize a meeting with the Nigerian government to make sure the children are not discriminated against because they were born out of their country.

He said a tripartite meeting of Cameroon, Nigeria and the United Nations refugee agency will be convened to examine birth certificates delivered to Nigerian children when calm returns to their country and they agree to return.

The UNHCR reports that since January this year, more than 11,500 Nigerians have arrived in the camp. The government of Cameroon says it has counted more than 74,000 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, and a majority are women and children. About 1,000 have so far received birth certificates.