Asia-Pacific urged to count all its citizens

A baby girl is born but her birth is not recorded. If she dies soon after, her death is not likely to be recorded either.

If she survives, she is at greater risk of being put to work as a child labourer, married off as a child bride or being trafficked against her will.

That is the grim reality facing 135 million children under the age of five in the Asia-Pacific region whose births were not recorded last year, according to estimates by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).

With this region home to most of the world's unregistered births, a conference held in Bangkok this week urged more urgent action to register and record all the vital events of their citizens, including births, deaths, marriages and adoptions.

This was necessary to help governments provide and monitor their development in terms of health, education and other social services, experts emphasised.

"To ensure that we leave no one behind, we have to make sure that we count everybody first," the United Nations Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, Mr Ahmad Alhendawi, said at press conference yesterday.

The event was organised by seven UN agencies and Plan International, a children's development organisation.

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the best and worst civil registration systems in the world. For instance, almost one in three unregistered children in the world live in India.

While the registration of births in the region varies from 24 per cent to 100 per cent, the registration of deaths can differ by as much as 9 per cent to 100 per cent. Death registration tends to be lower as the incentives for doing so are fewer.

Nevertheless, the absence of death certification can make it difficult for surviving family members to claim inheritance and spousal pensions.

Experts estimate that the cost of creating a comprehensive, accurate and timely civil registration and vital statistics system would average US$199 million (S$259 million) per year per country.

In 2012, 47 Asia-Pacific countries and territories including China, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines completed self-assessments.

Thirty-six of them reported their own systems lacking, while eight countries found their systems dysfunctional.

A Unicef report last year found that while the birth of male and female children tended to be registered at the same rate, urban households were more likely to register births.

In Afghanistan and India, for example, the registration of births in urban areas is twice that in rural areas.

Ethnicity was also a differentiating factor.

Birth registration for ethnic minorities tends to be lower than average in countries like Vietnam.

Without regularly collected statistics, countries have no adequate way of monitoring maternal and infant mortality or per capita indicators.

The lack of birth registration is a key cause of statelessness, points out Mr Nicholas Oakeshott, the regional protection officer from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"They are left without any legal identity or any documents to show that they have a link to a state and are entitled to nationality under the law," he told The Straits Times. As a result, they usually cannot hold passports or own land or vehicles.

In 2012 and last year, the UNHCR conducted a study with the Indonesian and Philippine governments, and identified more than 6,000 people of Indonesian descent with undetermined nationality in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The two governments have since agreed to work together to verify their nationality.

In the region, though, the largest stateless populations so far identified are located in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, according to a UNHCR report last year.


Percentage of births registered

Singapore: Over 90 per cent

Hong Kong: Over 90 per cent

China: 90 per cent

Philippines: 75 per cent to 89 per cent

Thailand: 70 per cent

Indonesia: 60 per cent to 70 per cent

India: 53 per cent

Nepal: 24 per cent

Percentage of registered deaths

Singapore: Over 90 per cent

Hong Kong: Over 90 per cent

China: 90 per cent

Indonesia: 60 per cent to 70 per cent

Philippines: 50 per cent to 74 per cent

Thailand: 60 per cent

India: 48 per cent

Nepal: 9 per cent

Source: United Nations Statistics Division

This article was first published on November 28, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.