With thousands of children younger than 5 years old living in Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda, Plan International, in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local authorities, is registering new births. The process is the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence.
“149 of the 160 new births have been officially registered and we are awaiting the arrival of their birth certificates,” said Eleazar Mugarira, Plan International Rwanda Senior Child Protection Manager in Mahama, home to nearly 30,000 Burundi refugees who fled the violence currently engulfing their country.
“I used to think that if I got my son registered as a refugee by UNHCR with guaranteed access to all services, including food, that is enough,” said Claude, a 20-year-old father of two.
Claude’s views are similar to many other refugees. To address this lack of information, Plan implemented an awareness campaign through community meetings to educate the Mahama camp community on the importance of registering their children’s births and the implications of not officially registering their children and acquiring a birth certificate.
“Now I know that failing to get my son officially registered will make accessing official documentation hard or even prevent him from going to school,” said Claude as he and his wife Renatha, 19, waited at the Plan office to register their 5-day-old son.
“I want him to be officially recognized as my own child and to have a nationality,” added Claude.
Without proof of identity, a child becomes invisible to the authorities. Registration allows children to access their rights and helps build a protective environment against abuse, exploitation, and violence, especially during and after conflicts, when state, community, and social structures break down.
“Birth registration helps prevent the trafficking of vulnerable children by proving the identity of a child’s parent or caregiver,” said Mugarira. “It can help counter early marriage by giving proof of their age. It also gives a child a nationality, which helps prevent statelessness.”
Financial means are often the first set-back for refugees wishing to register their children, as the registration offices are usually miles away from camp and a fee has to be paid.
As well as facilitating weekly visits to the camp by the registrar, Plan also assists with the payment for each birth certificate issued.
“We are currently dealing with newborn registrations,” Mugarira said. “We have more than 5,700 children under 5 who also need to be registered. We are going to start the process of registering older children soon.”