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Stateless in the Sahel

Aliou Moussa So, head of a refugee community of 73 families in PK 6 village, 6km from Rosso, shows IRIN paperwork of returnees who have still not attained their ID cards after 4 years of trying
(Anna Jeferys/IRIN)

Thousands of refugee children in western Mali are at risk of being stuck in the legal limbo of statelessness, which could mean little or no access to health care and higher education.

While the Malian government, along with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has issuing birth certificates to almost 8,000 children born to Mauritanian parents who took refuge in Mali between 1989 and 2014, the majority still have no legal paperwork linking them to either their country of origin or their country of asylum.

Among them is seven-year-old Boubacar* who was born in a cattle camp in a small community near Kayes, in western Mali, near the border with Mauritania, in 2008. 

Boubacar's parents fled inter-communal clashes in Mauritania more than 20 years earlier and never returned. 

“I was born in Mali,” Boubacar told IRIN. “I call myself Malian. Mali is my home.”

But because his parents never registered his birth at the mayor’s office or local health clinic, the law considers him to be neither Malian nor Mauritanian. 

This is despite the fact that both his parents and grandparents hold refugee status in Mali and are Mauritanian citizens. 

“Because these children were born in exile, their births were never registered,” said Mamadou Keita, who works with the local NGO Stop Sahel in Kayes, where the majority of the Mauritanian refugees have settled. 

“When a child is born [in Mali], the birth needs to be declared within one month… After one month, it becomes complicated and has to go through the courts,” he explained. 

But because these children were born to refugee parents, many of whom live in remote communities, they never went through this legal process. 

“These refugees have been living together with host populations in Kayes for years. They have their businesses…they are well integrated,” said Isabelle Michal, a public information officer with UNHCR in Bamako. 

“Birth certificates [for their children] are a legal component of the integration process. [They] protect children who would otherwise be at risk of statelessness.” 

No state, no services

This issue of stateless refugee children isn’t unique to Mali.  

Worldwide, more than 10 million people have no official nationality, according to UNHCR. Like Boubacar, many of them were born to refugee parents. Others were left without a country after borders were redrawn or new states emerged. 

Without a birth certificate, Boubacar and the more than 7,800 other children like him in Mali are unable to receive state services, such as health care and other social protection services, or officially register for school after grade six. 

For those refugee children wishing to stay in Mali permanently, unless they obtain a birth certificate they will never be able to register for a national ID card or passport, nor be they eligible to apply for citizenship in either Mali or Mauritania once they turn 18. 

It will also be difficult for them to officially marry or, one day, be issued a death certificate. 

“A birth certificate allows them to plan for a future,” Stop Sahel’s Keita said. “For example, it’s necessary to apply for higher education and receive study grants.”

Attempts at legality

The Malian government began a project to give refugee children birth certificates in 2012 but progress has been slow.

While the births of an estimated 400 children born since 2012 in health clinics were automatically registered, any children who were born before 2012 or in their home, went undocumented. 

In 2014, Mali ratified two international accords, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to ease the naturalization process of Mauritanian and other refugees.

Under these instruments a child has the right to be issued a birth certificate wherever they are born, even if it is a different country to where their parents were born. 

UNHCR, along with some local partner organizations such as Stop Sahel, have been working with the government to overcome some of the bureaucracy related to refugee registration and documentation for the past three years. But it wasn't until March, this year, that 32 birth certificates were presented to the children of Mauritanian refugees at a ceremony in Kayes.

“We currently have…volunteers working to issue the birth certificates,” said Lassane Traore, the secretary general to the mayor of Djelebou.

He said that since March, another 950 certificates have been written up and are ready to be distributed. 

But Boubacar, like thousands of others, is still waiting for his birth certificate.


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