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Pakistan: Afghan birth certificate programme expanded

Briefing notes

Pakistan: Afghan birth certificate programme expanded

6 February 2004

UNHCR has expanded a programme to issue birth certificates to refugees living in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, giving newborn Afghans a document that protects their nationality as required by international agreements.

The programme, which was pioneered beginning last year by our office in southern Balochistan Province, aims to issue birth certificates to all children born in the 15 refugee camps that were set up to host Afghans who fled war in Afghanistan in late 2001. The expansion of the birth certificate initiative began late last month at Barkali refugee camp near Peshawar.

Birth certificates are necessary in many countries to obtain education or medical care, and establish inheritance or the right to property. Crucially, it allows a person to prove nationality - in the most extreme cases the lack of a birth certificate could result in a person being declared stateless.

The new document records the baby's name and gender, date and place of birth, the father's name and place of origin. It is signed by UNHCR and Project Directorate Health, an organisation linked to Pakistan's Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees that provides medical services under an agreement with UNHCR. In addition, the Peshawar Consulate of the Islamic Transitional Authority of Afghanistan has agreed to endorse these new certificates of refugees who decide to return to their homeland.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 countries, requires that all children be registered immediately after birth and have the right to a nationality. Official support for the new programme was demonstrated by representatives of both the Pakistani and Afghan governments attending the launch ceremony last week in Barkali, a refugee camp of nearly 5,000 people in Bajaur Agency in the rugged tribal area along the Afghan border near Peshawar.

Initially the programme will issue birth certificates only to those born over the past year in the refugee camps that were established for those fleeing the 2001 war that unseated the Taliban. So far about 200 have been issued in Barkali camp, while nearly 3,000 have been distributed in Balochistan Province, which hosts six of the 15 new camps.

It is uncertain whether UNHCR in Pakistan will have the resources to extend the programme to the old camps or to cover any child born before 2003. Issuing birth certificates retroactively to children of Afghan refugees born outside Pakistan's refugee camps would be even more difficult. The number of Afghan children, like the total refugees resident in Pakistan, has never been well documented. While UNHCR estimates there are now about 1.1 million refugees in the 200 refugee camps scattered in Pakistan, the number elsewhere in the country is unknown.

The number of Afghan refugee children born in Pakistan since the crisis began a quarter century ago may number in the millions. Afghan refugees have one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, estimated at more than four percent a year. That would add more than 40,000 children for each million refugees every year - and the refugee population was several million throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

More than 1.8 million Afghans have repatriated from Pakistan since UNHCR and the Afghan authorities began facilitating returns in early 2002.