UNHCR's help for displaced Zimbabweans produces tangible results

Making a Difference, 17 February 2010

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
Florence reads her birth certificate with her delighted mother at her side.

MUTARE, Zimbabwe, February 17 (UNHCR) The 16-year-old girl was elated as she held up a document that will open up a whole new world of opportunity and have an impact on the rest of her life.

After waiting for hours outside a government registry office in the eastern Zimbabwe town of Mutare, Florence Nawengo had just been given a birth certificate, which will enable her to get an all-important national identity card.

Until that moment, she was at risk of becoming one of an estimated 12 million stateless people around the world. They do not possess a nationality nor enjoy its legal benefits. This often leaves them unable to do the basic things most people take for granted, such as registering the birth of a child, travelling, going to school, accessing health care, opening a bank account or owning property.

And Florence might still be facing these challenges but for a UNHCR programme to support internally displaced people (IDP), many of whom lacked important documentation, in the eastern Zimbabwe province of Manicaland.

This programme, implemented by local aid group, Christian Care, was set up last August to assist Zimbabweans uprooted from their homes. It helped some 220 people in Manicaland last year and UNHCR is expanding the programme to cover the whole country this year.

Florence and her mother were displaced as a result of slum clearance in 2005 and now live in a large former bar owned by the municipality in Mutare. UNHCR and Christian Care are helping the more than 100 displaced people who are sheltering there.

"Many of these people have lost their identity documents or had them stolen during displacement. They cannot afford the cost of replacing them," explained Jane Madzivaidze, a legal officer with Christian Care. "Through our mobile legal clinics, we advise them of their right to obtain birth certificates and identity documents and let them know that we can help cover the cost with funds provided by UNHCR."

Florence never had a birth certificate in the first place. Her Zimbabwean parents separated soon after she was born and her mother never went to register her birth because, under the law, the father must be present and show his ID card.

The lack of a birth certificate did not have a major impact on Florence's early life, but from the age of 16 onwards it becomes an issue in Zimbabwe, where people need to have a national identity card as proof of citizenship. UNHCR experts said that people without a birth certificate and/or national ID card were at risk of statelessness, particularly if they are of foreign origin.

Florence realized that to pursue a higher education, and more particularly to sit final exams at secondary school, she needed to have a national identity card, and to get this she would have to present a birth certificate.

Things were looking bleak until the UNHCR programme for IDPs was launched in Manicaland. "When Christian Care came to explain to me that I could get a birth certificate under my mother's name, as long we brought a witness to my birth, I was filled with hope," Florence recalled. "I had longed to get a birth certificate so that I could continue with my education, but I didn't have the money and I did not know where to find my father. Here is my chance, I thought."

Christian Care was able to fast-track her application through the registry office while UNHCR covered the US$4.50 cost of obtaining her birth certificate. She was told to return later to pick up her national ID card. The cost might seem small, but to many displaced Zimbabweans it is a fortune.

Florence has a more positive future and a big grin across her face. "Now I can go to school," the excited teenager cried.

By Tina Ghelli in Mutare, Zimbabwe.