In assisting Haiti quake survivors, start at the beginning: A birth certificate

© UNHCR/Pean

February 1 was the day that Jacqueline and her neighbours in a ramshackle settlement for victims of last year's devastating Haiti earthquake were born again. She is one of hundreds of Haitians who have benefitted from a UNHCR project to provide identity documents to vulnerable people who either lost them in the earthquake or never possessed them. Jacqueline lost everything and her inability to prove her identity or citizenship has made it difficult to access services put in place to help those whose lives were shattered by the earthquake.

A year after the earthquake struck, an estimated 800,000 people still live in more than 1,000 camps or settlements that emerged in its aftermath. The daily challenge of survival in these conditions can make replacing a lost birth certificate or an identity card a low priority for many.

"After an emergency, having the necessary documentation plays an important role in ensuring that vulnerable people don't slip through the cracks," said Vincent Briard, UNHCR protection officer in Haiti. "In the short term, identity documents allow people to access aid; longer term they can prevent them from becoming stateless."

The majority of the 1,500 people who have been assisted by the documentation project are women who no longer have a partner to help them raise a family. Many have taken in children who were orphaned by the quake. Some have given birth in the camps. Without proof of citizenship, children may not be able to attend school or receive medical care. They may also be more vulnerable to human trafficking.

Registering a birth in Haiti was never a simple process and the time, distance and money needed to register a birth within its first two years – as required in Haiti - can be a too great a task for the poor and vulnerable. By providing this registration, UNHCR is providing an essential first step in ensuring a child’s rights as a citizen and thus access to basic services and recognition before the law.

Working with Haiti's Ministry of Justice, local NGOs and other UN organizations, such as UNICEF, UNHCR plans to expand the registration project in 2011.

This documentation drive is one of 43 quick-impact projects that UNHCR has initiated to assist survivors of the earthquake. The other projects address needs such as providing survivors a means of earning an income or protecting women against violence or sexual assault in the camps.