Identity documents

Many individuals across Africa have difficulty in asserting their rights because they are unable to access identity documents that prove that they are citizens. Putting in place barriers to accessing documents that prove nationality is far more common than explicit denial of nationality, but it can be just as damaging. Those without access to identification as nationals may be denied freedom of movement, access to education and land and other rights.

The barriers to accessing proof of citizenship may take the form of administrative obstacles. For example, in Swaziland, non-ethnic Swazis often experience lengthy processing delays in accessing documentation. In Kenya, a constitutional review process in 2002 heard numerous complaints from members of marginalised ethnic groups such as the Somalis and Nubians of being forced to face burdensome screening procedures not applied to other Kenyans in order to get access to national ID cards or passports. One of the most common causes of lack of identification as a citizen on attaining adulthood, whether of the state of residence or of another state, is the failure of state authorities to ensure birth registration and the issue of birth certificates to every child born in the territory, including children of refugees.

The UN conventions on refugees and on stateless persons, as well as the Organisation of African Unity Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, provide for states to issue identity and travel documents to refugees (Article 27 of both the Conventions relating to the status of Refugees and of Stateless Persons, Article 13 of the OAU Refugee Convention). The same requirement is placed on states in relation to internally displaced persons by the UN Guiding Principles on IDPs and the Kampala Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Principle 20 and Article 13 respectively). UNHCR issued guidance on such documents in 1984. However, in practice, these documents may not be freely given, may not be recognised by all national authorities, or may be made available only if refugees accept restrictions on their freedom of movement.

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Target 16.9 of the SDGs is “By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration”. The World Bank has taken up this idea in its initiative “identification for development” (ID4D).

Key Resources

"Provide legal identity to all, including birth registration"

Sustainable Development Goals, Target 16.9

Related Themes