Source: Newstalk FM (Dublin)
By Arthur Velker
A bar of light falls on the long metal rack against the wall, illuminating a dusty stack of paper archives. A stout figure moves past, eyeing the books with hawk-like precision.
‘Rats,’ he says. ‘They will eat anything for survival.’
Simon Kuyembeh is a principal registrar at Sierra Leone’s Births and Deaths Ministry, an aged building located in the central district of the capital Freetown. He is a record keeper, responsible for guarding the bulk of the country’s civil registrations dating back to the late 19th century.
Simon is among a team of registrars who are currently playing a pivotal role in converting the paper archives into a new digitised format. But they are caught in a race against time—facing a glut of natural and social challenges that pose a risk to their sector’s development.
In the past three decades, Sierra Leone suffered a string of tragedies that ruptured its natural infrastructure. During the brutal ten-year war that broke out in 1991, national registrations were virtually impossible to conduct, leading to an epidemic of undocumented births. Added to this, the country lost a large portion of records during the conflict.
Then, in 2014, Ebola struck, deferring large proportions of the country’s population away from health facilities – leading thousands of women to give birth without medical supervision.
By 2015 it was estimated that more than a half of the country’s children were undocumented.
‘A birth registration is very often the most tangible link people have with the state,’ says Michael Sanderson, the Regional Protection Officer with UNHCR.
‘If you took out your wallet right now and just laid the cards out on the table, you probably have a credit card, a driver’s licence and maybe an ID card. Already, you’re not really in danger of being lost,’ he says.
‘These establish you as a national citizen – and so there is no question about which state has the responsibility for your protection.’
‘If you’re in West Africa—where you just do not have access to all of these documents in an ordinary way—birth registration becomes exceedingly important. For children, it will be the only evidence that they are who they say they are.’
Statelessness is a known gateway for a litany of human rights abuses. With no documentation to prove age or origin, children are vulnerable to forced marriage, labour and human trafficking.