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Costa Rica in push to give identity cards to indigenous people, prevent statelessness

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 February 2016 16:27 GMT

In this 2004 file photo, an indigenous Panamain Guaymi, 13-year-old Celia Montero, harvests coffee at a plantation in Cirri de Naranjo, 40 miles the north of San Jose. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate JCU

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Authorities estimate up to 8,000 members of the Ngobe Bugle tribe lack any type of documents

BOGOTA, Feb 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Reynaldo Miranda was born in Costa Rica in the 1980s, no birth certificate was issued. He grew up without an identity card but did not consider his lack of official identity a problem until he applied for a school scholarship and got sick.

Like many among the Ngobe Bugle indigenous group, Miranda's parents were born in neighouring Panama, and had crossed into Costa Rica looking for seasonal work in coffee plantations.

Over the decades, many ended up settling in Costa Rica, and their children, known locally as Chiriticos, have been born and raised in the Central American nation.

"My parents never registered our births. They didn't really know about this. It's not something done in our culture. They didn't have any identity documents either," Miranda, now 28, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"This became a problem when I tried to apply for a scholarship to continue studying at school but without a birth certificate I couldn't get one and I had to drop out of school."

Without the certificate proving he was born in Costa Rica, Miranda found it difficult to get an identity card, and in turn could not register the birth of his own two children.

"Without an identity card, you don't have any rights," said Miranda, a coffee picker.

"You need a identity card for everything. Without it, I couldn't get the medicine and medical care I needed and any social welfare benefits."

The lack of an official document proving their country of birth puts people at risk of statelessness, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

Stateless people, sometimes referred to as legal ghosts, are not recognised as citizens by any country, which means they are denied basic rights.

Indigenous groups are particularly at risk of being stateless because traditionally they do not register the births of their children and women often give birth in remote areas instead of in state hospitals, the UNHCR says.

Local authorities estimate up to 8,000 members of the Ngobe Bugle tribe, along with children born in Costa Rica to migrant workers from neighouring Nicaragua, lack any type of documents.


As part of a drive to eradicate the risk of statelessness in Costa Rica, mobile teams are travelling around the countryside, particularly during coffee harvest time, to identify indigenous families and their children who do not have birth certificates.

Often this involves officials going from door-to-door, from coffee farm to coffee farm.

"Ensuring people have birth certificates is a key prevention against statelessness. An undetermined nationality creates a risk of statelessness," said Marcela Rodriguez-Farrelly, UNHCR's protection officer in Costa Rica.

"This is an invisible situation. If you don't have a birth certificate, you can't access your rights," she said.

Since the programme spearheaded by the UNHCR and state authorities in Costa Rica and Panama started in late 2014, around 5,000 people, mostly from the Ngobe Bugle tribe, have received birth certificates.

Many have gone on to get identity cards, including Miranda and his family.

"We now exist. We now have rights," he said.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the biggest stateless population is found in the Dominican Republic.

Around 200,000 Dominican-born people of Haitian descent are stateless in the Dominican Republic, following a 2013 ruling by the country's constitutional court that threw into question their citizenship, the UNHCR says.

Worldwide there are around 10 million stateless people, the UNHCR estimates, with many found in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand, and more than a third of the world's stateless are children.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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