Barriers from birth: Undocumented children in Iraq sentenced to a life on the margins

Published 30. Apr 2019
An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps are missing civil documentation and may face total exclusion from Iraqi society: barred from attending school, denied access to healthcare and deprived of their most basic rights, warns the Norwegian Refugee Council in a new report.

More than one year since former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi declared 'victory' over the Islamic State (IS) group, an estimated 870,000 Iraqi children today remain displaced. Thousands were born under IS rule. About 45,000 children displaced in camps today do not have Iraqi-state issued birth certificates or other civil documents proving their legal identity.

This is depriving them of their most basic rights as Iraqi citizens. Children without these documents are at high risk of being sentenced to a life on the margins of Iraqi society – creating a neglected generation unable to travel between Iraqi cities and towns, barred from attending formal schools and obtaining educational certificates, and denied access to health care or state social welfare programs. If not addressed before reaching adulthood, these children risk being denied having their marriages recognised by the state, owning or renting property or having a fair chance at formal employment.

The reasons these children lack documentation vary. Many of their parents had documents confiscated by IS militants, others lost their documentation as they fled. Others had their documents confiscated by Iraqi security forces due to perceived affiliation with the extremist group. While IS was in control, the group also established its own version of state bureaucracy, which included registering births, marriages and documentation of life events. These IS issued documents are considered invalid by the Iraqi government.

Children and their families face continued challenges in obtaining civil documentation. Procedures to do so in Iraq are today even more lengthy and complex than they were before 2014. Civil directorate offices are strained and under-resourced. Obtaining a civil ID for the first time or renewing was known to take less than a week before the war with IS. Based on the Norwegian Refugee Council’s experience, today in Mosul this process can take up to six months, if there are no additional complications.

Today, Iraqi women with either deceased or missing husbands are forced to undergo an even lengthier and more complex process of proving the circumstances of the death, proof of marriage in order to have the necessary paperwork issued. This is necessary to then obtain birth certificates, nationality certificates or civil IDs for their children.

Compounding these problems is the desire for retribution, and related stigma and marginalisation of those whose family members or relatives – no matter how distant - are perceived to have had links to, or sympathy with, the Islamic State group. For children from families who are accused of IS affiliation by state security forces or neighbours in their areas of origin, obtaining documentation becomes nearly impossible, resulting in the collective punishment of thousands of children.

As the Iraqi government, and the international community, continues to invest in the restoration of public services and institutions, ensuring the people most severely affected by the conflict with IS have the documentation required to access services will be critical to guarantee that Iraq’s road to recovery is inclusive. This must include children. Failure to do so risks undermining prospects for social cohesion and exacerbating existing ethno-religious tensions that were dramatically worsened by the conflict with IS.