In assisting Haiti quake survivors, start at the beginning: A birth certificate

News Stories, 1 February 2011

© UNHCR/Pean
A resident of the Petit Goave settlement for those displaced by last year's earthquake in Haiti receives birth certificates for her three young children as a result of a UNHCR project.

PETIT GOAVE, Haiti, February 1 (UNHCR) This was the day that Jacqueline and her neighbours in a ramshackle settlement for victims of last year's devastating earthquake were going to be born again.

Jacqueline is one of hundreds of Haitians who have benefitted from a UNHCR project to provide identity documents to vulnerable people who either lost them in the quake or never possessed them. Her inability to prove her identity or citizenship has made it difficult to access services put in place to help those whose lives were shattered by the earthquake on January 12 last year.

"In just 40 seconds, I lost everything my husband, two children, my house, my possessions, my livelihood. Even our documents were destroyed," she said. "Since then, we have lived in this camp. Without papers I can't do anything. I cannot receive assistance, access services or enroll the little ones in school."

A year after the earthquake struck, an estimated 800,000 people still live in more than 1,000 camps or settlements that emerged in its aftermath. The daily challenge of survival in these conditions can make replacing a lost birth certificate or an identity card a low priority for many.

"After an emergency, having the necessary documentation plays an important role in ensuring that vulnerable people don't slip through the cracks," said Vincent Briard, UNHCR protection officer in Haiti. "In the short term, identity documents allow people to access aid; longer term they can prevent them from becoming stateless. Many of the people we are working with never had these documents and without them they do not formally exist. Providing a birth certificate allows them to regain their rights as citizens."

The documentation drive is one of 43 quick-impact projects that UNHCR has initiated to assist survivors of the earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people. The other projects address needs such as providing survivors a means of earning an income or protecting women against violence or sexual assault in the camps.

Like Jacqueline, the majority of the 1,500 people who have been assisted by the documentation project are women who no longer have a partner to help them raise a family. Many have taken in children who were orphaned by the quake. Some have given birth in the camps. Without proof of citizenship, children may not be able to attend school or receive medical care. They may also be more vulnerable to human trafficking.

"Birth registration is an essential first step in ensuring a child's rights," said Urbens Dieuveuil, manager of the local non-governmental organization, ACAT Haïti, a UNHCR partner involved in the project. "It provides proof not only of the rights that come with citizenship, but also proof of their mere existence."

Registering a birth in Haiti was never a simple process. The bureaucratic hurdles can trip up even those who are informed and reasonably well off. For the poor and vulnerable left homeless by the earthquake, the time, distance and money needed to register a child within its first two years as required in Haiti can be too great a task.

The right to citizenship is often called the "right to have rights," because of the official status it conveys and the access it provides to basic services and recognition before the law. Working with Haiti's Ministry of Justice, local NGOs and other UN organizations, such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN refugee agency plans to expand the registration project in 2011.