SYDNEY - The children of Manus Island refugees and local women are being denied birth certificates, according to their families, potentially leaving up to 39 of them stateless.
A number of refugee men detained in the Australian-run Manus Island regional processing centre and Papua New Guinean women started relationships as early as 2015, with some children born shortly after.
The regional processing centre was shut down in 2017 but at least 750 refugee and asylum seeker men remain in the country, with 580 of those on Manus Island, according to UN high commissioner for refugees estimates from July.
Families say authorities have refused to issue birth certificates to their children, despite multiple attempts to obtain the documents.
“I just want a marriage certificate for my wife and I, birth certificates for our two babies, citizenship and an area where we can live,” Haroon Rashid, a 27-year-old Rohingyan refugee, says.
Rashid fled Myanmar because of ethnic cleansing by government forces and arrived in PNG in 2013. The following year he was found to be a refugee and married a 22-year-old Manusian woman, Molly Noan.
The couple says provincial authorities have refused to issue birth certificates for their two-year-old son, Mohammed, and 17-month-old daughter, Almeera.
In 2016, after their eldest child was born, they asked the Manus Island provincial administrator for documents but were told to get confirmation from the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Authority.
But the authority told the couple it was not its responsibility and referred the matter back to the Manus Island provincial government.
Rashid and Noan have given up trying to get these documents owing to what they say are continual delays and refusals. “Our marriage and life is aimless and our destiny is uncertain without him being a citizen,” Noan says.
The future remains unknown for these refugee and asylum seeker men without PNG citizenship, while others face a long wait for resettlement in third countries. Now their children face a risk of statelessness too, as they lack birth certificates to prove they were born and registered in PNG.
Experts warn that the denial of birth certificates violates the children’s international legal right to be registered immediately after birth.
“Denial of birth certificates is the first step to statelessness,” says Prof Hélène Lambert, an expert in international refugee law at the University of Wollongong.
She warns that the children could become exposed to further human rights violations that flow on from a lack of proper documentation: “This could result in a whole range of social, economic, civil and political rights being denied.”
An Iranian refugee, Amin Abofetileh, 28, and his Manusian wife, Kate Yang, 20, have experienced similar delays in obtaining documentation for their 14-month-old daughter, Liberty. “We’ve tried many times to get Liberty’s birth certificate and they just give us excuses,” Yang says.
Abofetileh fled Iran in 2012 after government persecution for his Ahwazi Arab background, and arrived in PNG the next year.
Since he was recognised as a refugee and married in 2016, Abofetileh has longed to become a PNG citizen who is accepted in the community. “I want to stay here with my family and, if I am to leave this country one day, I have to go with my wife and baby,” he says.
The precarious legal status of refugee fathers places their children at further risk of statelessness, according to Dr Laura Van Waas, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion in the Netherlands.
“Lack of birth registration can create a risk of statelessness, which is heightened in certain circumstances where a child is born to migrant or refugee parents, or belongs to a minority community that struggles to have its ties to the state recognised,” she says.
Some refugees have been resettled in third countries, leaving their Manusian partners to raise their children in PNG.
Beverly Francis, 21, had a child with a 25-year-old refugee, Zaher Ali, who was resettled in the US in 2017. Though their four-month-old son, Ali, died from an illness in September, Francis continues to push for his birth certificate, which was never issued. Without it, Francis says she has nothing to prove her son existed.
Hilda Paul, 18, is mother to one-year-old Fatima through her relationship with a 25-year-old refugee, Jawad Hussain, who was resettled in the US in September 2017. Paul says authorities have repeatedly refused to issue a birth certificate for her daughter.
The problem is growing as refugee men continue to have children with their local partners. There have been reports of between seven and 39 children born through relationships between refugees and local women.
Father Clement Taulam is a Catholic priest on Manus Island who does pastoral work with refugee families. He says at least 39 children have been born from such relationships, as of 31 October.
But the citizenship authority refused to confirm this number and claims there are only seven children. Attempts to confirm the number of births with Lorengau hospital have been unsuccessful.
The Australian government has refused to confirm reports that the children of refugee men and local woman have been denied birth certificates. “This is a matter for the government of PNG,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said in a one-sentence statement.
Human Rights Watch says the Australian government continues to pay for their upkeep. “The fact remains, I think, that Australia still has their obligation to these people,” says Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch.
The children’s plight is not an isolated case. Almost 50 years ago a similar situation occurred in Australia’s first Manus Island camp for refugees fleeing the Papua conflict. Children of PNG women and West Papuan refugees who were processed in Australia’s Salasia camp have waited for decades to receive birth certificates and citizenship.
Terrrien Mambrasar, 30, is the eldest of four children born to a Manusian mother and a West Papuan refugee father, who arrived in PNG in 1984. Mambrasar only received her birth certificate and citizenship at 29 in 2017, along with her three younger siblings.
“Even though we were born in PNG, to a PNG mother, it was difficult to get these vital documents,” Mambrasar says.
The National Identification Office in PNG is the body responsible for issuing birth certificates to citizens. It did not respond to requests for comment.
The PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority (ICSA) denied allegations that its staff refused to issue birth certificates to the children of refugees.
“Whoever you spoke to misled you that ICA has stopped them from applying for birth certificates for the children,” a spokesperson for PNG ICSA stated. “It is mandatory for all citizens to be registered at birth and these children fathered by refugees are PNG citizens under PNG constitution (Citizen by Decent).
“ICA works with the provincial authorities to ensure all children fathered by the residents are registered.”
PNG ICSA claimed that since 2014, it had registered and granted citizenship to more than 3,000 children of West Papuan refugees.
Experts say Australia and PNG should coordinate a response to the denial of birth certificates. “In my view, they should come to an agreement whereby one of these two countries is responsible for issuing birth certificates to these children,” Lambert says.
Rashid is now calling upon both the PNG and Australian governments to issue birth certificates to his children: “I want to call on Scott Morrison, ‘Give me citizenship now that you are prime minister.’”
This story was written as part of Reporting Vulnerable Children in Care, a journalism skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with UBS’s Optimus Foundation