23/11/2017 7:40 AM AEDT | Updated 23/11/2017 7:47 AM AEDT

For Millions Of Refugees Around The World, Paperwork Is A Matter Of Life And Death

The idea of where we come from and where we belong is profound.

Kevin Frayer via Getty Images
September 20, 2017: A Rohingya refugee boy desperate for aid climbs onto a truck at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

The idea of where we come from and where we belong is profound. It makes us who we are.

The question of identity has Australians soul searching today. Federal politicians are scrambling to trace ancestors and confirm their citizenship credentials.

Meanwhile marriage equality sparked off a vociferous national debate about what should or shouldn't inform our identity in the eyes of the law.

But what happens when someone is robbed of their identity completely? What happens when no country on the entire planet will grant you nationality and the right to live within its borders?

That is the reality facing at least 3.2 million men, women and children scattered across 75 countries, according to accumulated estimates by governments. Under international law, these people are described as 'stateless'.

In a report released this month, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates the real level of statelessness could be at least three times this. After all, how do you accurately count people who don't legally exist?

Losing access to documentation such as a marriage, death and birth certificates, will block a person in every direction -- limiting their access to secure housing, utilities, healthcare, education or employment.

Nobody chooses to be a refugee, but every one of us has the right to feel safe, contribute to our community and call somewhere home.

The plight of the Rohingya, a stateless minority in Myanmar, has again brought this to the forefront in recent weeks as more than 600,000 people flee violence and take refuge in Bangladesh. A lack of clarity around identity and paperwork could weaken the ability of some refugees to either return to Myanmar or stay in Bangladesh. Then where should they go?

As each new generation is born and denied the right to a nationality, this cycle of statelessness is harder to reverse. It robs people of all rights and pushes them further to the fringes of society.

But there are solutions. Ethiopia took a major step forward this month to protect the almost 900,000 refugees it is hosting by giving them the right to documentation under its national civil registration system. Paperwork might be a chore for you or me, but for refugees this means access to basic services, education, future employment and quite simply the right to exist under the law.

For the first time, refugee babies born in Ethiopia will have the right to birth certificates, and refugees will be afforded other documentation such as marriage and death certificates.

My colleague who was in Ethiopia to witness the program roll out shared the story of a South Sudanese mother she met called Ariat who was lining up to have her baby boy's birth registered under the new scheme.

Ariat fled South Sudan in 2013, quite literally running for her life alongside her family as gunfire erupted around them. Now a refugee in Ethiopia, Ariat was hugely relieved that her newborn would be legally recognised, telling my colleague "this is like life for us, it is our identity".

The new policy is just one demonstration of a commitment made last year by all members of the UN General Assembly to develop a new Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). This aims to safeguard protection rights for people fleeing conflict, such as: universal birth registration to prevent statelessness, allowing children to take the nationality of the country they are born in and eliminating laws that discriminate on the grounds of minority status.

Nobody chooses to be a refugee, but every one of us has the right to feel safe, contribute to our community and call somewhere home.

As we debate the ramifications of identity in Australia, let's remember the millions who remain stateless around the world and ensure they are not forgotten.


To donate to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis visit the UNHCR website or call 1300 722 943.