[Episcopal News Service] To have a nationality means to exist, though millions of people worldwide are stateless because of armed conflict, politics, border disputes and economic migration. Others are rendered stateless simply as result of never having had their births registered.
“We’re talking about some of the world’s most dispossessed people,” said the Rev. Canon Flora Winfield, Anglican Communion Representative to the United Nations institutions in Geneva, Switzerland, during a March 16 discussion on statelessness and universal birth registration held at The Episcopal Church Center.
More than 30 Anglicans and Episcopalians participated in the discussion, which took place in the larger context of the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW), meeting in New York March 9-20. It included information on the status of the Anglican Communion’s campaign aimed at universal birth registration, and ways in which churches communion-wide can promote and assist parents, particularly mothers, in registering the birth of a child.
Unregistered children, explained Winfield, often are more vulnerable to human trafficking, more likely to be enlisted as child soldiers, and more likely to be forced into child marriage. Additionally, they are less likely to have access to education, health care and social services.
An estimated 10 million people are stateless worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which in 2014 launched a 10-year campaign to eradicate statelessness.
In addition to UNHCR, the International Anglican Family Network is working to end statelessness through a campaign for universal birth registration; it supports global efforts to ensure compliance in countries that recognize the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Globally, the births of an estimated 230 million children under the age of 5 have gone unregistered, with 59 percent of those children living in Asia, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The Anglican Family Network began its involvement toward universal birth registration three years ago, explained the Rev. Terrie Robinson, the Anglican Communion’s director for Women in Church and Society.
Without a birth certificate, a person’s nationality may not be recognized; the issue is important to the church, Robinson explained, because having a nationality is a basic human right, and “having an identity and belonging in community helps us [human beings] to flourish.”
Given the reach of Anglican churches around the world, the church is poised to work with organizations, such as UNICEF and Plan International that are already engaged in birth registration, to connect field workers with bishops in dioceses where births typically go unregistered.
“It’s a growing, theologically grounded movement, and the church is everywhere – so we have the opportunity to slide it into existing ministry,” said Robinson.
Winfield added that by assisting parents to bring their children into the fold of community, the church also helps them to later take their place as adults in civil society. When parents bring their children to church to be baptized, churches have an opportunity to ask if the birth has been registered, and assist in registering the birth if it has not.
Currently in 27 countries around the world a mother cannot pass on citizenship to her baby, with 12 of them being in the Middle East and North Africa, she said. In the case of Syrian refugees, women head 25 percent of households, said Winfield.
“This is not a problem that will go away soon,” she said. “Every church in every province can engage in this; it really does take all of us, as well as our partners in mission and ministry.”
The March 16 discussion was facilitated by Lynnaia Main, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s officer for global relations, and came at the request of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who in late 2014 visited the Dominican Republic to learn about the effects of a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling that annulled the citizenship of an estimated 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, many of them women and children whose births have gone unregistered.
In May 2014, following intense political pressure and international calls for justice, the president introduced and the Dominican Congress passed a law allowing children of “irregular” migrants, or nonresidents deemed “in-transit” under a 2004 law who have birth certificates, to become citizens and those without documents to apply for legal residency and later citizenship. The deadline for those affected by the decision to submit documents to prove citizenship, including birth certificates, was Feb. 1. However, for many, particularly poor, marginalized people, obtaining a birth certificate is an arduous, expensive, if not impossible process.
“The biggest problem in the Dominican Republic is the process is very complex; free but complex,” said Digna de la Cruz, of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic and who is representing Province IX at the UNCSW. “It’s a problem for people of Haitian descent, but also Dominicans who don’t have their birth certificates.
Without a birth certificate, a person typically cannot obtain an identification card, which is required to study, to apply for dignified employment, to marry, to register children, to qualify for state health insurance and pensions, to open a bank account, to apply for a passport, to participate in elections, or even to be baptized.
“Not to have birth registration, identity papers is serious,” said Lelanda Lee, who serves as chair of The Episcopal Church Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking. Lee explained that following the high court’s 2013 ruling, the Executive Council passed a resolution that the presiding bishop travel to the Dominican Republic on a fact-finding mission to address the statelessness issue.
“It’s one thing not to allow someone to become a citizen, but to retroactively take it away just seems unbelievable,” she said.
— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.