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UNHCR document plan ensures rights of returnee children in Angola

UNHCR document plan ensures rights of returnee children in Angola

UNHCR has completed a vital step in reintegrating Angolan refugees by ensuring that their children receive the ID needed to enjoy the rights of citizenship.
16 November 2007
Young Angolan returnees at a school in the eastern town of Luena. Returnee children will receive the national identity documents they need to enjoy the rights of citizenship.

LUANDA, Angola, November 16 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has completed a vital step in reintegrating the Angolan refugees who returned this decade, ensuring that their children receive the national identity documents needed to enjoy the rights of citizenship.

With nearly 90,000 children registered for cédulas - the Angolan birth registration cards - the relatively few remaining to be included will be handled solely by the Angolan government. The final total receiving documents through the programme is expected to be more than 100,000 Angolans under the age of 18.

"Without documentation, especially of children, reintegration remained an empty word in terms of access to rights, making them into non-persons," said Dario Carminati, UNHCR's representative in Angola. Lack of a cédula can block access to education and medical services available to other citizens.

"I am convinced that this was the single highest challenge remaining to be able to affirm that organized repatriation is over and reintegration is fully in the hands of the government since there is no longer any differentiation between returnees and Angolan citizens who had never left," Carminati said.

The programme reflected the reality that refugees returning home - after years, if not decades away - often need much more assistance than just transportation back from their country of asylum.

In the four years of organized voluntary repatriation that was declared officially complete at a conference in Luanda last March, UNHCR brought back nearly 140,000 Angolan refugees. During that period, UNHCR also assisted 117,000 Angolan refugees who returned on their own. A further 154,000 refugees are estimated to have returned home and reintegrated without such assistance.

The conflict in Angola had lasted a quarter century and many of those returning had not even been born in their homeland. Many had to learn Portuguese before they could attend school or get work. After years in refugee camps where they had free access to food rations, medical care and education, some had problems adjusting to life in a country just emerging from war.

Of all the problems, the lack of a cédula providing the children with proof of citizenship was among the most glaring. After the government stopped issuing them for free in November 2004, returning refugees continually brought up this obstacle to basic services with UNHCR staff.

The lack of documents for their children underlined the sometimes strained relations between returning refugees and those who had stayed throughout the conflict - a common feature of post-war reconciliation.

The charge to register a child discouraged returning parents from obtaining cédulas, threatening to turn the lack of documentation into a lifelong problem. Even those returnees with the money to pay, sometimes found the government did not have the capacity to issue them.

"It was after a meeting last year that I was able to get the consent and full participation of the Ministry of Justice for tackling the problem," said Carminati. "Since then they have definitely been on board."

The national ministry announced early this year that children up to the age of five should be registered free and that the provincial delegations could raise funds locally to register the rest. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) immediately responded with the contribution of a million birth registration cards, 200,000 birth certificate forms and 5,000 birth registration ledgers.

UNICEF also provided pens and pencils and, when there were shortages, UNHCR stepped in to buy and deliver other documentation materials needed by government officials in the provinces.

The campaign started in Zaire province, followed by Moxico and Kuando Kubango. Those three provinces are home to 74 percent of all the returnees and by this November nearly 90,000 children there had been registered.

In a few cases where all the returnee children had been handled, other children who lacked a cédula were provided with the vital document - a gesture that helps eradicate tensions between those who stayed and those who fled the civil war.

In a further sign of successful reintegration, returnees have been registered to vote in the national elections promised for next year. If they had no other identity document, the government accepted the UNHCR document they received to facilitate their return from exile.

UNHCR has offered to help future repatriation if the thousands of Angolan refugees who remain outside the country change their minds and wish to come home. But with the successful completion of the documentation programme, UNHCR's focus in Angola is moving from returnees to the needs of asylum seekers from other countries who are arriving in Angola.