Philippines

Volunteers boost Sama Bajau birth registration amid pandemic

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Almalyn Akmad (in yellow headscarf) distributes birth registration certificates to her fellow Sama Bajaus in Kasanyangan, Zamboanga City, Philippines. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego

Since 2019, a community outreach programme has registered 900 of the indigenous seafarers in the Philippines who were at risk of statelessness.

By Maria Jorica Pamintuan in Zamboanga City, Philippines | 04 November 2021

Throughout their lives, the indigenous seafarers in this bustling city in the Philippines had little or no paperwork to prove that they exist – but this is about to change.

At 7:30 on a sunny Saturday, Almalyn Akmad stands beside a waiting van with a list of her Sama Bajau neighbours in her hand. One by one, the people around her file into the vehicle as their names are called out.

They are headed for the Civil Registrar’s Office of Zamboanga City to be interviewed in a birth registration drive for members of the community, who are at risk of statelessness due to their itinerant culture and generations without registering births.

On interview day, Almalyn serves as the Sama Bajaus’ guide and interpreter. She has been a community volunteer assisting with birth registration efforts since 2019. A Sama Bajau herself, she went through a similar process to obtain a birth certificate and knows it can be challenging for members of her community

“Some people … find it really difficult because they don’t have any of the requirements,” Almalyn said.

The Sama Bajau frequently roam between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia by sea in an itinerant lifestyle that has left many without official ID, and consequently hampered their access to services like education, healthcare, and jobs.

To bring them out of the shadows, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF launched the birth registration drive in Zamboanga City in 2019 as part of the agencies’ Joint Strategy to End Childhood Statelessness. The initiative is being carried out with partners from the government in line with the Philippines’ National Action Plan to End Statelessness by 2024.

Typically, delayed birth registration requires government-issued supporting documents such as a marriage contract, tax certificate, academic record, proof of immunization, or national health insurance.

“Before, when they would be interviewed, they would hide out of fear.”

But the pilot project simplifies the registration process for the Sama Bajau and relies on the efforts of volunteers like Almalyn, to raise awareness and change perceptions among the community that is sometimes fearful of outsiders.

“Before, when they would be interviewed, they would hide out of fear. Now, they approach us to register, they ask us for advice on how to do it,” Almalyn said.

She and two other volunteers go house-to-house to inform residents of upcoming birth registration activities. They make the rounds again ahead of scheduled appearance dates at the Civil Registrar’s Office, and once more to distribute the birth certificates.

“That’s the most difficult part, going around,” said Almalyn with a laugh. Her community is part of Kasanyangan Village, a densely populated area by the coast. Like most Sama Bajau villages, houses are on stilts over the water and are connected only by a wooden boardwalk. Doing the rounds to share updates or to distribute birth certificates can take hours. On some days, Almalyn does not get home until after dark.

Her dream is for everyone in her community to have a birth certificate as proof of identity, particularly the children, so that they can get an education and have a shot at a better life. It is a sentiment shared by others in the community, among them Kinsilina Muhamad, 40. Her youngest son Arnel is in the third grade.

“I need my son to finish his schooling because I’m getting old and I won’t be around for him as he’s growing into adulthood soon,” she said, adding that, if he can hold a pen in his hand, “he can find work in the city.”

While literacy skills are increasingly valued by the Sama Bajau, many older community members never learned to read or write. Community volunteers’ assistance in reading, translating, and filling out forms has been critical to facilitating the birth registration of entire families.

“I’m truly happy to see this birth certificate because I really need it.”

The project currently seeks to reach an estimated 1,500 Sama Bajau living in Zamboanga City and Tawi-Tawi province. Since it started two years ago, it has helped 900 people to register their births. The onset of the pandemic just months after it was launched has intensified both the challenges of implementation and the need to facilitate the community’s access to COVID-19 assistance, healthcare and vaccination programmes.

“Being able to help is a great feeling, especially now that it’s really necessary for people to have a birth certificate,” said Almalyn.

The satisfaction she feels as a community volunteer is matched by that of the people she has helped, including Kinsilina, who at 40 years old, was finally able to hold her birth certificate in her hands for the first time.

“I’m truly happy to see this birth certificate because I really need it. I’ve been wanting to have one for a long time, but I did not know how to get one,” she said. “I’m really thankful.”

The Sama Bajau are not alone in facing statelessness, a situation that impacts millions of people worldwide. Without proof of citizenship, they are unable to get an education, obtain medical treatment, travel freely, seek a job or even buy a SIM card for a mobile phone.

UNHCR is seeking to end statelessness by 2024, through its #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness.