Born into a refugee life
Registering the birth of every child in a civil registry is essential as it provides children with proof of a legal identity, a prerequisite for the ability to exercise rights and access services. The Sustainable Development Goals have recognized the relevance of birth registration with SDG target 16.9 pledging to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030. However, despite significant global progress in birth registration, UNICEF has estimated that one in every four children below the age of five - some 166 million - remain unregistered at the end of 2019.1
Registering children born to refugees can be even more complex, yet especially important to ensure that they receive adequate protection and assistance. The number of registered births is often unavailable, not reported by governments or not properly recorded in national administrative systems. In many cases this is because the births of refugee children cannot or will not be registered in the host States’ Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems or it may be difficult to determine among all children registered by authorities, how many are refugees. Even where UNHCR is operationally active and maintaining up-to-date figures on refugee family composition to enable its work, it is challenging to obtain a full picture. This is partly due to security concerns and other barriers that prevent UNHCR and its partners from collecting complete datasets.
Estimating missing births through data imputation
To better assess the numbers of such children, UNHCR calculated estimates by imputing missing birth data for the years between 2018 to 2021. The imputation had to accommodate the fact that forced displacement is likely to impact the fertility pattern of refugees. Refugees face a drastically different situation than those remaining in the country of origin and are usually not representative of the overall population which means their birth rates can deviate from their country’s overall birth rate. Thus, birth rates in the country of origin are not necessarily indicative of refugee populations that have fled these same countries.
The starting point of the imputation was to assess the extent of missing birth data. The challenge was to differentiate between instances where refugee births were not registered and those where the number of births of a refugee population from a specific country of origin in a specific host country in a year was zero. Data on births was considered missing, if the country of asylum had not registered children born to refugees of any country of origin, or the refugee population of a given country of origin was large enough to make the lack of recorded births highly improbable.
This process identified that between 2018 and 2021, there were gaps in the data on children born into refugee status in many countries globally. As shown in figure 1 the biggest data gaps on birth figures are prevalent among refugee-hosting countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific and Europe regions. By contrast, in the Middle East and North Africa, birth registration of Syrian refugee children has progressively improved since the onset of the crisis.2
Figure 1 | Missing data on children born to refugees by region | 2018-2021
How was the imputation conducted?
To fill these gaps, missing data on children born to refugees per country of origin, country of asylum and year was estimated using a model that incorporated several covariates strongly linked to childbirth. These included among others:
- the birth rates in the countries of asylum and origin,
- the ratio of women of childbearing age compared to the total number of women in the refugee population,
- the expected number of years that girls will attend school in the country of origin and
- other relevant socio-economic indicators.
How many children are born into refugee life?
Using this method, UNHCR estimates that more than 1.5 million children were born into refugee life between 2018 and 2021, equivalent to some 380,000 children per year. This represents an increase of more than 300,000 children compared to the number of births registered by or reported to UNHCR, displayed in figure 2. Considering that this imputation is based on several broad statistical assumptions, results should be interpreted as estimates and not precise figures.
Figure 2 | Children born to refugees | 2018-2021
Registration figures for 2020 were compromised by movement restrictions implemented by States to halt the spread of COVID-19, which made it much more difficult to conduct civil registration activities, but they have recovered in 2021.
To further improve data on displaced children, including birth registration, UNHCR continues its leadership in relevant fora, such as the International Data Alliance for Children on the Move.