(UNHCR) – It feels like a maternity ward, a room full of newborns wrapped in towels, yawning in shoulder slings as their parents take a break from nursing and coaxing. Instead of the sound of bawling babies, there is only the gentle rustling of papers in a scene of quiet efficiency.
It’s birth registration day at Tham Hin refugee camp in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province, 12 kilometres from the border with Myanmar. District registration staff, dressed in T-shirts that read “Register Your Baby, Protect Your Child,” have come to help newborn refugees apply for their birth certificates.
While most people take it for granted, refugee babies started to enjoy this right in September 2010, when Thailand’s Civil Registration Act was implemented. Under the revised law, all children born in the country are entitled to birth registration even if their parents are not Thai nationals – an important step to prevent statelessness among a new generation of refugees.
In itself, birth registration does not confer nationality upon a refugee child. But by establishing a legal record of where a refugee was born and who his or her parents are, the birth certificate is a key way to prove if someone can acquire nationality when he or she can eventually return home.
Pyone May,* 40, is from Kleethu village in Myanmar’s Karen state. She explains how she came to be registering her baby so far from home. Her entire village had fled their homes 15 years ago when fighting broke out between the military and rebel groups. “For one month, we slept on leaves on the ground and kept moving as the situation grew worse,” she recalls. “The journey was very hard. With two young children, we walked through the jungle and climbed mountains. My whole body was in pain.”
Eventually they reached Thailand and were moved to Tham Hin camp. Today, Pyone May’s brood has grown to six, the youngest of whom has just received a birth certificate. “In the camp, they announced that all newborns must be registered, to record their names and hopefully register for future benefits,” she says, noting that she keeps the birth certificate in a safe place with her other refugee documents.
When birth registration first started, UNHCR and the government conducted an information campaign encouraging Myanmar refugees living in the nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border to register the birth of their Thailand-born children. There were committee meetings, awareness-raising by health workers, posters, T-shirts and other visibility materials to drum up interest.
“We explained to the refugees that birth registration may help their kids access education, health care and employment in the future and that it could protect them from things like statelessness, early marriage and trafficking,” said Emily Bojovic, UNHCR’s protection officer in Tham Hin.
“But for some, the reasoning didn’t stick because the population already has access to health care and education in camp and doesn’t see the need for those protections,” she added. “So we also explained that we don’t know what the future holds and that this is a simple process that may help their kids later in life. Every parent wants to do the best for their kids, so even those who are not entirely sure why it is important are ensuring their kids are registered and receive a birth certificate.”
Maw Lay,* 23, heeded the advice. She herself does not have personal identity documents beyond her registration papers, which are frayed and parchment-soft from years of thumbing and folding. In late July, she gave birth to her second child in the camp clinic run by the International Rescue Committee. The clinic staff certified the birth to the Thai district authorities, who then came to the camp to conduct birth registration and update family records. Forms were filled and a photo of the baby was taken.
For babies born in hospitals outside the camps, Thailand has established a database that connects the hospital to the civil registration office to ensure they are simultaneously registered in the national civil registration system.
Within weeks of her application, Maw Lay has come to pick up her baby’s birth certificate. “It’s important for his studies or if he wants to resettle in the future,” she says. While she is unsure about her own future, she has high hopes for her newborn: “If he is smart enough, I want him to work in a clinic as a doctor.”
Some 5,000 babies have so far received birth certificates in the nine refugee camps. Many more are waiting to enjoy this right as the district authorities and UNHCR start to address the backlog of children born in the camps in recent years.
At the ministerial meeting on refugees and stateless people held in Geneva last December, Thailand pledged to continue to ensure that all children of displaced people and other people of concern to UNHCR have non-discriminatory access to protection services under Thailand’s Child Protection Act, and that children born in Thailand are entitled to birth registration and other rights under Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
UNHCR has held up Thailand’s refugee birth registration as an example in the region, and hopes that those children born before the new law came into effect can also have their births registered.
*Names changed for protection reasons
By Vivian Tan in Tham Hin Camp, Thailand (UNHCR)