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The power of an identity 

Norwegian Refugee Council 

When people are forced to flee their homes to escape violence, they often run into challenges related to civil documentation. In the chaos of fleeing, important documents such as passports, ID cards, birth certificates and marriage licences can be destroyed or lost.

Individuals forced to flee often find out that not having these documents can have serious consequences that can make them more vulnerable.

Rabiu is a 25-year-old tricycle driver from the town of Mubi, in Adamawa State, northern Nigeria. He requires the aid of a walking stick to get around. Like many others, he was forced to flee his home in Adamawa due to the decade-long conflict.

“I was in a little shop when we started hearing the sound of heavy explosions and people shouting. We heard they were looking for men to kill, so we left immediately. The following day, we fled to Cameroon,” Rabiu recalls.

“We were denied access at the border because we had no proof of identity, so no-one could be sure where we were coming from. I lived all my life without having any ID and so I did not see the need for it.”

He was eventually allowed to cross the border. Border guards pitied him because of his walking stick. But many who flee are not so lucky and are categorically denied access if they lack ID – one of many challenges related to civil documentation.

Another challenge is that when children are born in displacement sites or refugee camps, their births are often not registered. Because of this, they are often unable to access basic services such as education.

In response, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) works with authorities to provide identity documents for families that have been forced to flee. We help to build the authorities’ capacity so that they can respond to more cases, and we work with them to raise awareness of the rights of displaced people concerning legal identity.

Cross-border intervention

These workshops are not just limited to Nigeria but also take place across the border in the Far North region of Cameroon. We are working with authorities in both countries as part of a larger project to promote social inclusion and local governance in areas affected by the Lake Chad crisis.

In partnership with the French Development Agency (AFD), we planned a series of workshops for local authorities, and so far three sessions have taken place in Cameroon and 12 in Nigeria.

The Lake Chad Basin crisis has displaced over 490,000 people in Cameroon’s Far North region. The insecurity caused by the conflict has also had adverse effects on the region’s civil registration system, and a number of registration centres have remained closed for several years. In the centres that are functional, staff often have little knowledge of the appropriate texts and procedures related to civil status registration.

“If there is so much to fix concerning the civil status system in Cameroon, it is because the texts and procedures applicable to civil documentation are poorly known,” says Japonais Toumbalai, who is head of the regional agency for the National Civil Status Registration Office (BUNEC).

Our workshops aim to strengthen the system with a capacity-building strategy. In Cameroon this involves bringing together different actors in the civil registration system, such as representatives from the Ministry of Justice, public health service providers, local administrators, other humanitarian actors, and of course displaced community members.

These workshops offer an opportunity to understand the procedures for registering vital life events such as births, marriages and deaths, as well as clarifying grey areas.

“I did not know until today I could register the births of children whose births I facilitate,” said Makary, a traditional birth attendant who participated in our workshops. “With this training I now understand the importance of declaring births within the legal deadline.” 

A new identity

Rabiu eventually returned to Nigeria from Cameroon. Back in his hometown he faced challenges because he lacked ID, even though he was no longer a refugee.

“Even when we returned home and I bought a tricycle to earn a living, I could not drive too far away to get passengers. I was always being harassed by the police and each time they demanded to see my ID.”

We identified Rabiu during one of the information and counselling sessions in his town and helped him to get an ID card. With funding provided by the French Development Agency, we were able to set up a system where we use mobile vans to provide hundreds of residents in Mubi with ID cards at their doorstep.

“It took me less than an hour to secure my ID and this seems like a dream to me. Now I can drive as far as the border town to get passengers and work from morning until dawn,” says Rabiu.

With these workshops, mobile ID vans and information sessions, there is hope that more people who have been forced to flee will have easier access to their rights.

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