UNHCR chief focuses on documentation programme during Haiti visit

News Stories, 9 September 2011

© Andres Martinez Casares
A displaced woman tells High Commissioner António Guterres about the challenges she continues to face some 20 months after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, September 9 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Haiti this week, putting the spotlight on a project that is helping Haitians who lost vital documentation needed to rebuild their lives after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

During his visit on Wednesday and Thursday, Guterres also toured other UNHCR programmes and met government officials to discuss the need to provide assistance to the undocumented Haitians who lost everything in the earthquake, which destroyed much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and left tens of thousands dead.

Some 20 months after the earthquake struck, there are still more than 600,000 people living in about 1,000 spontaneous camps around Port-au-Prince and roughly 200,000 internally displaced people staying with host families in cramped makeshift housing.

Many of these people lost vital documents, including birth certificates. Moreover, because only about a quarter of Haitians are born in hospitals, many births go undocumented. These two factors have left a large portion of the population without proof of their identity, which can affect their ability to rebuild their lives.

''Providing a birth certificate helps Haitian citizens access their fundamental human right proof of nationality. Without birth certificates, these people don't exist," Guterres said in Port-au-Prince. The High Commissioner appealed to the Haitian authorities to undertake legislative reforms to ensure that those without documentation can get birth certificates easily and for free.

Jackson Emile, 17, is one of the many who would benefit. His family is from the seaside town of Leogane, which lies above the epicentre of the earthquake. Jackson lost his home, his father and the only proof he had of his identity. Without a birth certificate, Jackson has had a difficult time claiming ownership of his family's land.

"Before the earthquake I used to live very well. My dad was here with me. I used to eat well. Everything was okay." Following his father's death last year, Jackson was unable to finish school and had to fight people who were trying to take his land.

Supporting Haitians in obtaining official documentation is one of UNHCR's primary objectives in Haiti and a key tool in preventing statelessness. To achieve this goal, UNHCR has partnered with local NGOs and Haitian administrators. They spearheaded projects in Leogane, Carrefour and Port-au-Prince as well as in the border area with the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Guterres promised that UNHCR would continue to develop documentation programmes and assist the government in modernizing its civil registry system. Documentation acts as a source of protection for individuals. Without a birth certificate people can not enjoy their most basic rights, including land ownership and access to education and health care. It also makes them vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

By the end of this year, the UNHCR projects will have provided recognized birth certificates, free of charge, to 5,000 vulnerable people in Leogane and other parts of Haiti. These documents will help them get access to public services and protect them from abuse and exploitation. They will also help in family tracing and reunification.

For Jackson, receiving a copy of his birth certificate is the first step towards rebuilding his life. "When I turn 18, I would like to be able to have full control of my land. I plan on farming the land growing rice giving back to the community of Leogane," he said.

The High Commissioner's focus during his Caribbean trip this week has been on refugee issues and the prevention of statelessness in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, reinforcing a global UNHCR campaign on the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.



Haiti: Getting PapersPlay video

Haiti: Getting Papers

Jackson Emile lives in Leogane, epicentre of Haiti's 2010 earthquake. He lost his father and vital documents. Without these he struggles to keep his land and rebuild his life.

UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat campPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat camp

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Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced IraqisPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced Iraqis

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Jordan: UNHCR and Host Countries Discuss SyriaPlay video

Jordan: UNHCR and Host Countries Discuss Syria

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres meets in Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp with leaders of countries hosting Syrian refugees in the region. He again urged the international community to do more to help these countries shoulder the burden.