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April 30, 2024

Improving Civil Registration Systems Can Help Reduce Statelessness 

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Around 15 million people in the world are considered stateless. Stateless people, or people who are not recognized as citizens by any country, often face a lifetime of insecurity and marginalization, deprived of access to education, health care, marriage and other basic human rights. The absence of a functional and universal civil registration system is seen as one of the greatest obstacles to the realization of the right to a nationality. 

Civil registration systems oversee the registration of births, deaths and other vital events. Birth registration is essential to protect children born to parents who are in an irregular migration situation, or to refugee or asylum-seeking parents.  

Civil registration alone does not confer citizenship, but birth registration is a necessary prerequisite for determining an individual’s citizenship. Birth registration provides proof, in the form of birth certificates, of the person’s parentage and place and time and date of birth. Without this evidence, it can be extremely difficult for a person to claim citizenship of any nation. Having a birth certificate can support a child’s repatriation and return to his or her country of origin where appropriate. 

Registering the births of children born to parents in irregular migrant situations is also important to ensure accurate national data on the population in the host country which can provide the government and other actors with relevant data to prevent statelessness and address vulnerabilities created by statelessness.   

While civil registration and determination of nationality are governed by two separate legal and administrative processes, there are often misconceptions among politicians and decision-makers about the role of birth registration in citizenship determination. This can hinder the process of reform toward fully universal civil registration.  

To help overcome this, the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) has produced a briefing paper that clarifies the relationship between civil registration and the determination of nationality or citizenship. The paper also provides guidance on key attributes of a strong civil registration legal framework that can help to reduce or prevent statelessness. 

Most countries have ratified international treaties that include obligations to register the birth of every child (including the Treaty on the Rights of the Child which recognizes birth registration as a fundamental human right). Civil registration is also part of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9, which aims to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Global Action Plan to End Statelessness 2014-2024 calls on States to ‘ensure birth registration for the prevention of statelessness’ and seeks to improve quantitative and qualitative data on stateless populations.  

As part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Data for Health Initiative, GHAI is committed to contributing to the fight to end statelessness by helping countries strengthen their civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) legal frameworks through legal review, reform and advocacy. 

As part of these efforts, GHAI participated in the 2024 World Conference on Statelessness, held from February 26 to 29, 2024 at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With the theme ‘Solidarity, Knowledge, Change’, over 400 participants with lived and learned experiences of statelessness came together to share knowledge and experiences and explore pathways to end statelessness.  

Among the many topics explored in the conference, legal identity and birth registration stood out as among the most important issues in the fight against statelessness and GHAI distributed the briefing paper and contributed to discussions.