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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UAE-led initiative to give identity to 90 million children who 'don't exist'

A campaign being run from the UAE by Johnson's Baby and Save the Children will support youngsters whose births are not registered

Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, Lebanon, for Syria in September. Many newborns are unregistered and, without documentation, do not have access to healthcare. Wael Hamzah / EPA
Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, Lebanon, for Syria in September. Many newborns are unregistered and, without documentation, do not have access to healthcare. Wael Hamzah / EPA

Across the Middle East and Africa region, 91 million babies do not officially exist, but a new UAE-led initiative is hoping to give them an identity.

Born as refugees, or in countries without established procedures, their births are not registered leaving children without a legal identity.

As a result, they cannot get vaccinations and other basic health care, education or a passport.

The problem is particularly bad in Lebanon, which is home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and Ethiopia, where a registration process exists but it remains almost impossible to access for people living in remote areas.

But a new campaign being run from the UAE is aiming to change that.

The Right Start Initiative, a three-year project by Johnson’s Baby and international charity Save the Children, was launched in Lebanon and Ethiopia last month.

“The issue is really that, at the outset, the lack of having a name means that children can’t get something as basic as their first vaccination,” said Andy Roberts, senior marketing director for the region at Johnson & Johnson.

“If you can’t prove the age of the child, then you can’t get basic health care. You then can’t register them for a school. And the problems escalate as you go through life. It’s very sad actually.”

Even returning to their home country after seeking refuge elsewhere is impossible, said Ahmed Bayram, media advocacy and communications co-ordinator for Save the Children.

“The simple right of moving around freely is not possible if these families decide to one day go back to Syria without papers,” said Mr Bayram.

“They will not be able to because the first thing they will be asked is how can you prove this baby is yours.”

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The Right Start Campaign seeks to increase registrations by hosting a selection of training events and workshops for government and parents to improve education on the topic.

There is no age restriction for registrations, though the initiative is primarily focused on babies and young children.

But the way the campaign operates in each country is different.

In Ethiopia, the government recently adopted a policy for the registration of births, but sign-up remain low, with just one in 20 children in rural areas registered.

“So it is a big education effort to get them to understand the value of being registered. And then it is really about building capacity among the federal and regional organisations in order to be able to perform the registration,” said Mr Roberts.

A birth registration programme was not previously set up in Lebanon, so the campaign is working to establish it for the first time under the Right Start initiative. And alongside that, the campaign is providing counselling support for affected families to help them through the process.

“Birth registration is a right of all children under the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child,” said Allison Zelkowitz, Lebanon country office director for Save the Children.

“We are grateful that Johnson’s Baby shares our concern about the long-term negative consequences faced by children lacking a legal identity.”