ACCRA, Ghana, Dec 8 (UNHCR) – They came in the wee hours of the morning, bearing stools and chairs in anticipation of the long wait. By daybreak the crowd had grown exponentially, gathering outside the primary school at Buduburam refugee settlement in Ghana to make sure their children got a head start in life.
The refugees were waiting to meet the visiting team from the Registrar of Births and Deaths, who had set up base in the freshly-painted school block in late October to register refugee children for birth certificates. Of the 42,000 mostly Liberian refugees in Buduburam settlement, more than 18,000 are children. Many of the 4,000 born in the settlement have no official biographical document, even though some were born up to 11 years ago.
The magnitude of the problem came to light when UNHCR started registering the Liberian refugees for voluntary repatriation a few months ago. The agency's staff were already aware that most of the newborn babies did not have birth certificates, but further probing revealed that for children above the age of one, registering their births required cash for the processing of affidavits – approximately the cost of eight meals – which the refugee mothers could not afford.
In response, UNHCR offered to pay the processing fee, and brought in the birth registration team and a commissioner of oaths to process the affidavits. The birth registration was also simplified by a separate refugee registration conducted between July 2003 and January 2004 that gave UNHCR up-to-date information on refugee families, including the children's biographical data.
On the first day of the birth registration, Rachel Blamo, a mother of two, said she left for the school well before 3 am to secure a good position in the queue she had anticipated. Other mothers, babies, siblings and neighbours arrived after 6 a.m. and sought shelter under UNHCR's marquee. They were all pleasantly surprised, cheering and clapping when UNHCR staff announced that the agency would relieve them of the processing fees.
More than 1,000 children were registered on the first day. An anxious-looking Tanya "Lucky Girl" Taylor arrived a little too late, but heaved a sigh of relief when she heard the team would be returning to Buduburam weekly until all children born in the settlement are issued with birth certificates.
On the surface of it, birth registration is a simple, sombre bureaucratic activity. But the occasion at Buduburam sparked off an infectious euphoria. The registration not only paves the way for voluntary repatriation to Liberia, but also gives refugees their fundamental birth right to an identity. UNHCR seeks to ensure, as spelt out in the Agenda for Protection, that refugee children are provided with birth certificates to confirm their status.
"Apart from it being a human right, registration is the primary step towards providing an appropriate lasting solution to the problem of refugees – such as voluntary repatriation, resettlement in a third country, or local settlement," said Thomas Albrecht, UNHCR Representative in Ghana, on the inclusion of registration in the agency's strategic directions in the country.
Since UNHCR started facilitating returns to Liberia on October 1, more than 550 refugees have gone home from Ghana, with another 436 expected to be airlifted back this week.
By Needa Jehu-Hoyah UNHCR Ghana