Balkan countries strive to give all children birth certificates

06/01/2014

Governments and civil society are implementing measures to secure this right and reduce the chances of children becoming human trafficking victims.

By Marina Stojanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 06/01/14

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The vast majority of unregistered children in the Balkans are Roma. [AFP]

Balkan countries are working to provide birth certificates to all infants in an effort to reduce the number of unregistered births so that more children can be provided health care, education and social benefits and be less vulnerable to human trafficking.

Experts said the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates children's registration at birth is a human right, and ignoring it can be detrimental to children's well-being.

"There is a much greater risk for children to become victims of trafficking because appropriate identification cannot be made," Open Gate, a Skopje-based NGO that assists human trafficking victims, told SETimes in a statement.

In Kosovo, more than 8 percent of children are not registered, the majority of which are Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians.

To address the problem, the Kosovo Interior Ministry, in co-operation with the EU, created a public awareness campaign to encourage parents to register their children.

The ministry said it will organise another awareness campaign this year to explain the benefits of having children registered, as well as the consequences for those who are not.

"Not registering children can bring forth many problems, beginning with the lack of identity documents," the interior ministry told SETimes in a statement.

In Macedonia, the government recently formed a cross-sector group, including the internal affairs and labour ministries as well as representatives from the registry for birth, marriage and death, to seek ways to better assist parents in registering their children.

Prior to the government's involvement, however, civil society was active in addressing the problem of unregistered children, including collecting data to assess its magnitude.

Given the difficulty of proving identity, however, civil society can only assist 100 children annually. By the start of 2014 more than 500 Roma children were given birth certificates, said Sarita Jasarova, president of the Skopje-based NGO LIL.

"We are conducting door-to-door activities in locations where families who do not register their newborns have been detected," Jasarova told SETimes.

Jasarova said NGO activists try to explain to parents that without personal documents, children become practically non-existent for the state and are potential victims of trafficking.

Several children, ages 13 to 17, who were victims of trafficking did not own any documents, according to Open Gate.

"In these cases, it was discovered that the entire family has no identification documents," Open Gate said.

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Protests took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina when a law expired and left thousands of babies without personal identification numbers. [AFP]

In Serbia, the Office of the Ombudsman estimated there are 30,000 people without identification documents, 6,000 of which were not registered at birth.

"These people may become victims of human trafficking but also one day they may end up on the other side of the law. They have no health care, cannot find a job, nor do they have the right to vote," Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic told SETimes in a statement.

Last summer, Serbia's parliament adopted amendments on the law regulating the work of state institutions, which stipulate citizens can obtain personal identification cards without being required to submit a birth certificate or a registration of residence.

The amended law also requires public servants to record their information.

Jankovic said he expects the changes will make a difference, and in particular enable children to obtain benefits and assistance for which they are eligible.

In Turkey, the rate of unregistered children decreased from 26 to 6 percent between 1993 and 2008, said Ismet Koc, demography expert at the Institute of Population Studies in Ankara.

"However, despite this relative improvement, 360,000 out of 6 million children under 5 are still not registered," Koc told SETimes.

Koc said the problem is most pronounced in low-income families and those where mothers have little education, primarily Roma and Kurds.

But as healthcare is free in Turkey for people under 18, government awareness campaigns conducted through medical personnel have aimed to register all children by the age of 5.

Consequently, Turkey instituted a "family practitioner system" in 2010 to persuade parents to register their children as soon as they are born.

Civil society organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) estimate the number of unregistered people, mostly Roma children, is between 5,000 and 10,000, and some officials claim the number may be as high as 100,000.

"We cannot say why such persons are still without appropriate personal identification cards because that is under jurisdiction of entities' internal affairs ministries," Amila Opardija, spokesperson at the Agency for Identification Documents, Registers and Data Exchange of BiH, told SETimes.

The expiration last year of the law guaranteeing issuance of an identification number to children compounded the problem.

Because of political disagreements to reinstitute the law, thousands of children born between February and July were not issued personal identification and medical cards as well as passports until issue was resolved.

BiH authorities introduced amendments to the criminal code last September to include tougher penalties for traffickers in accordance with the 2011 EU directive on preventing and fighting human trafficking.

"If the victim of trafficking is a minor, the penalty is increased from 5 to 10 years in prison. If the victim is an adult, the penalty is increased from 3 to 5 years in prison," Marina Bakic, spokesperson for the BiH Justice Ministry, told SETimes.

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Others said the suggestion that there may be 100,000 children without personal identification documents is alarming and must be acted upon.

"I will urgently launch this question at the next session of the commission and we will ask the competent institution to speak out about it," Mladen Ivanic, member of the BiH parliamentary committee on human rights, rights of children, youth, immigration, refugees and asylum, told SETimes.

Correspondents Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Bojana Milovanovic in Belgrade, Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo and Linda Karadaku in Pristina contributed to this report.

What should the Balkans countries do to ensure children obtain birth certificates and other documents? Share your opinion in the comments space.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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