by Henrietta H. Fore*
Imagine finding yourself unable to prove who you are, your age, where you are from—or, indeed, that you exist at all. This is the mind-bending reality faced by over 1bn people worldwide who lack a legal identity. More than half of them are children.
I saw the impact of this last February when I visited Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to nearly 1m Rohingya people. They fled their homes more than two years ago and many still hold no legal identity. They live in an unending state of statelessness: most were never recognised as citizens in Myanmar and today they are not recognised as refugees in Bangladesh. This leaves them deprived of their rights and without access to services. Around 500,000 of them are children, faced with an uncertain future and left invisible to the world.
Legal identity—such as your name, your parents, where you were born, and so on—is the sole way to establish legal recognition, enable governments to deliver services and ensure the rights of children. Without legal identification like a birth certificate, children are essentially invisible. They are at a higher risk of being excluded from basic things like education, health care and social services. It makes them more vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, being recruited into the military or tried as adults.
As they enter adulthood, they are often deprived of social assistance or unable to work in the formal job sector. They can lose the ability to buy property or claim their rights to inherit it. They can find it impossible to vote or obtain a passport or open a bank account. In other words, a child without a legal identity is denied the fundamental right to be recognised as an individual before the law, and to be treated as such by their government.
Registering children at birth is the first step in safeguarding their rights. Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, countries have pledged to provide legal identity to all, including registration at birth, by 2030.
To achieve this, we need to move quickly and technology can help. By digitising civil-registration systems and centralising data in the form of a digital, legal ID, we are better able to co-ordinate services, which is especially important for children in remote areas or uprooted by conflicts or natural disasters as they cross borders.
The refugee children of Cox’s Bazar still have hopes and dreams, like children everywhere. But how will they live out their ambitions unless they are first visible and counted?
The organisation that I lead, the United Nations Children’s Fund, known by its acronym UNICEF, is working with the government of Bangladesh to help resume a birth-registration system in the district. The previous system was discontinued following the refugee influx in 2017. The digitised system would assist in bringing a substantial measure of protection for the children in Cox’s Bazar (though to be sure, in many cases children are denied an official identity because of disagreements over their legal status, and the only real solution is a political one).
There are benefits to digitising legal identification. It can be used to improve other digital registers—so when crises strike, aid groups can provide continuity in tracking immunisations among young children or medications for those living with HIV. The systems can also speed up the process of reuniting families.
Some progress is being made. In Pakistan, an app developed in collaboration with the government and Telenor, a mobile operator, lets health workers and marriage registrars collect data on new-born children. The information is sent to the local authorities. After it is reviewed and approved, the child is legally registered.
In another example, Pacific Island countries face the difficulty of distance for birth registration and certification. So new digital systems and internet links are an important part of the solution. Social-welfare officers on outer islands can digitally submit birth registration data through a central office and print birth certificates locally in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Yet to make projects like these the norm, expanding internet coverage to remote and vulnerable communities is vital, so information can be accessed in real time. It also means the traditional, paper-based identify systems must be adapted as digital systems are introduced, to ensure both offline and online processes can work in parallel.
Moreover, it means helping children and adults who have grown up in a system that does not recognise their birth to catch up and establish their legal identities—at last.
One important technology is biometrics. It can help the registration of adults who lack a legal identity or cannot demonstrate one. It lets authorities recognise an individual as unique and helps to validate other sources of information to a specific person. Many countries are enrolling people through fingerprints, footprints, iris scans and facial recognition.
Yet these systems are largely ineffective for children. The technology was designed to distinguish adult features, which are larger. And as children grow their features change, making matching harder. Because of this, the systems often exclude minors. Hence the gold standard is registration at birth.
Of course in all this privacy is critical. The ability to aggregate and link data, even with good intentions, raises concerns about children’s anonymity, privacy and protection. And what happens when digitised legal identities are connected or blended with other forms of online identity, like social-media profiles? Digital technologies have already chipped away at our ability to remain anonymous. They have allowed individuals to create multiple, ambiguous identities online.
To meet new risks, digitised civil-registration and identity systems must be based on strong legal, operational and regulatory foundations. This requires significant resources, political will and sensitivity—notably taking into account the unique needs of mobile populations. The benefits of a legal identity must be balanced by the absolute necessity for appropriate data protection and controls.
Though the challenges are great, the benefits are greater. We can reduce the “identity gap” between rich and poor countries. Digital technology can help ensure that legal identity systems are continuous, compulsory, universal and permanent. As the world celebrates the 30th anniversary of the most widely ratified human-rights treaty—the Convention on the Rights of the Child—we must ensure that all children have the legal identity that is a foundation of modern life.
*executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund
**first published in: www.economist.com