Monday, June 29, 2015

Stateless in Sahel

Thousands of refugee children in western Mali are at risk of being stuck in the legal limbo of statelessness, which could mean little or no access to health care and higher education.

While the Malian government, along with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has issuing birth certificates to almost 8,000 children born to Mauritanian parents who took refuge in Mali between 1989 and 2014, the majority still have no legal paperwork linking them to either their country of origin or their country of asylum.

“Because these children were born in exile, their births were never registered,” said Mamadou Keita, who works with the local NGO Stop Sahel in Kayes, where the majority of the Mauritanian refugees have settled.  “When a child is born in Mali, the birth needs to be declared within one month… After one month, it becomes complicated and has to go through the courts,” he explained. But because these children were born to refugee parents, many of whom live in remote communities, they never went through this legal process. “A birth certificate allows them to plan for a future,” Stop Sahel’s Keita said. “For example, it’s necessary to apply for higher education and receive study grants.”

Boubacar's parents fled inter-communal clashes in Mauritania more than 20 years earlier and never returned.
“I was born in Mali,” Boubacar told IRIN. “I call myself Malian. Mali is my home.”
But because his parents never registered his birth at the mayor’s office or local health clinic, the law considers him to be neither Malian nor Mauritanian.  This is despite the fact that both his parents and grandparents hold refugee status in Mali and are Mauritanian citizens. Without a birth certificate, Boubacar and the more than 7,800 other children like him in Mali are unable to receive state services, such as health care and other social protection services, or officially register for school after grade six.

For those refugee children wishing to stay in Mali permanently, unless they obtain a birth certificate they will never be able to register for a national ID card or passport, nor be they eligible to apply for citizenship in either Mali or Mauritania once they turn 18. It will also be difficult for them to officially marry or, one day, be issued a death certificate.

“These refugees have been living in communities in Kayes for years. They have their businesses…they are well integrated,” said Isabelle Michal, a public information officer with UNHCR in Bamako.  “Birth certificates are just the legal component of the integration process. They protect children who would otherwise risk statelessness and they open the door for possible citizenship, local integration and social cohesion.”

This issue of stateless refugee children isn’t unique to Mali.  Worldwide, more than 10 million people have no official nationality, according to UNHCR. Many of them were born to refugee parents. Others were left without a country after borders were redrawn or new states emerged.

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