Advancing Research on “Stateless Children”: Family Decision Making and Birth Registration among Transnational Migrants in the Asia-Pacific Region




Ball, Jessica
Butt, Leslie
Beazley, Harriot
Fox, Natasha

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University of Victoria, Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives


This paper foregrounds parental decision-making about birth registration in order to expand understandings of the determinants of child statelessness in contexts of transnational migration. Discourses on “stateless children” – children who lack birth registration or who live as undocumented international migrants or refugees – have typically emphasized human rights challenges resulting from statelessness, as well as the need for states to have accurate demographic data for planning and security purposes. Stateless children tend to be viewed from a deficit perspective emphasizing risks and deviations from dominant views of the conditions for optimal child development. While risks are not in doubt, positive motivations and reasoning of parents and, sometimes, older children themselves, for not obtaining birth registration, have not been seriously considered. Many states have mobilized to achieve universal birth registration as part of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (UNICEF, 2005; Plan International, 2010). As providers of the means for identity documentation and the benefits that typically accompany citizenship – including health care, education, and social protection – states are seen as the primary source of solutions to child statelessness. In this paper, we argue that the top-down perspective dominating discourse about statelessness is based on an inaccurate and unhelpful construction of parents as passive in regards to their children’s documentation and security. A glaring omission in tackling child statelessness is an evidence-based understanding of decision making by mothers, fathers, children, kinship networks, community leaders, and middle-men and women in regards to birth registration. Drawing on examples from Indonesia about high rates of child statelessness associated with transnational migrant labour flows, this article emphasizes the complex social, economic, cultural, and legal contexts of families seeking livelihoods beyond national borders. Dynamics within this sociocultural niche may contribute to low rates of birth registration as mothers and fathers contend with competing goals and needs in the context of precarious living conditions. The article points to the need for multi-vocal, multi-site ethnographic research that reveals mothers’ and fathers’ decision-making and children’s inputs in regards to birth registration, citizenship, and mobility. Research that seeks to understand mothers’ and fathers’ reasons for non-registration, despite enhanced availability of birth registration facilities,can contribute to knowledge on the topic of child statelessness in general. This research could yield insights into family and community influences that may need to be taken into account in designing government interventions to increase birth registration, reduce barriers to children’s access to entitlements associated with citizenship, and plan for children and family social protection, education, and wellness.




Ball, J. et al. 2014. "Advancing Research on “Stateless Children”: Family Decision Making and Birth Registration among Transnational Migrants in the Asia-Pacific Region." Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives. MMP. University of Victoria, pp.1-4.