Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armenian Bureaucracy Puts Kids at Risk
Armenian justice minister Gevorg Danielyan says unregistered children are vulnerable, not only to poverty, but also to exploitation by criminal groups. (Photo: Arpi Makhsudyan)
Yerevan’s school no 194: scores of children in Armenia have no birth certificates because of a bureaucratic maze. (Photo: Arpi Makhsudyan)
Artashes, 12, was born in Vanadzor but has lived in Yerevan with his mother for the last five years.
“We called him Artashes, and he will take his father’s surname when we manage to get him a birth certificate,” said his mother, who asked not to be named since she fears publicity could harm her son’s chances of getting papers.
Artashes goes to school, and only a handful of people know he has no documents to prove his identity.
“To get a birth certificate, I need to present a document saying that he is my child, which would mean asking the doctors’ clinic. But 12 years have gone by, and I don’t know if they’ve kept his vaccination card. I asked a lawyer, who told me I need to ask a court to recognise that the child is mine,” the mother said.
Scores of Armenian children lack birth certificates, with activists warning that could leave them outside the law and vulnerable to exploitation.
Armenia has retained the bureaucracy-heavy Soviet system, under which documents confirming a person’s identity are required for even minor interactions with state officials.
According to a report published last year by the Union of Armenian Assistance, and based on investigations in Yerevan, the Shirak region and Gegharkunik, 145 children below the age of 12 lack birth certificates.
The Yerevan city government said that in the capital alone in February this year there were 73 children without documents.
Artashes’s mother did not at first worry about her son’s status, but after hearing that his father had remarried and had a new family, she was concerned that Artashes might miss out on his inheritance.
“A relative told me that if I do not resolve the problem of the child’s documents, then my son would lose his right to his father’s house. I am at my wits’ end. I cannot buy my son a house, and do not want him to live in the family flat for his whole life,” she said.
According to the Union of Armenian Assistance, changes to the law made in 2006-7 allowed many previously undocumented children to register, but the problem had not been entirely resolved.
“The problem of the lack of registration is mainly the fault of the parents and their low level of legal knowledge. In the regions, we registered many cases where births took place at home, and the parents not only did not know what steps they needed to take to register the child’s birth, but did not even suspect it was necessary,” the union said in its report.
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielyan told IWPR that unregistered children were vulnerable, not only to poverty, but also to exploitation by criminal groups.
“Parents do not register their children for various reasons, such as to allow them to avoid military service. This is not a new thing, but it is widespread. We are not talking about thousands of children of course, but it is clear the number is large,” he said.
“In studying the problem, we understood that the laws are often good but because responsibility has not been placed on some agency we end up with what we have now. The education ministry puts responsibility on the health ministry, which in turns passes it on to the social support ministry, which gives it to the justice ministry and a person dealing with this problem has to go round in circles.”
The Union of Armenian Assistance agreed that the refusal of officials to grapple with the problem was preventing a resolution. The union’s director, Anna Mnatsakanyan, said most of the undocumented children were from poor backgrounds and sometimes their parents lacked documents too.
“For us this has definitely been a serious problem, since we have not just tried to find them but to help them as well. We work with all state agencies, but for the simple reason that not one of them wants to take responsibility for this, the problem gets worse. I think that if one agency is given the responsibility of dealing with children who lack identity papers, the question will be resolved,” she said.
Karine Sargsyan gave birth in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and then moved to Armenia. She had no documents for herself so was unable to register the child.
“It has been five years and I cannot resolve the problem of my child’s birth certificate,” she said.
“It took four years for me to get an Armenian passport, but I still cannot solve the child’s problems. My daughter has had no trouble. She went to kindergarten, and now she’s at school, she’s had all her vaccinations. But in the registration office they are saying that I registered my child late in the clinic, and they use that as a reason to postpone a resolution of the problem,” she said.
“Not money, not acquaintances, nothing helps.”
A spokesman for the territorial administration ministry said the minister, Armen Gevorgyan, had set up a committee to study the problem and report back with recommendations.
Mnatsakanyan said she would like to see a system like in Europe, where a child is registered at birth whether its parents can present documents to identify themselves or not.
“Of course, they have technical conditions that allow the establishment of the identity of the child with the help of DNA analysis, and the storing of the child’s blood. These conditions may be lacking in Armenia, but we can still set up a similar system. For example, maternity wards could be obliged to tell the registration agency of the birth of a child just on the basis of a mother’s word,” she said.
She said that children could be kidnapped or trafficked with near-impunity if they fall outside the legal system.
“If a child is sold, or killed, or violently treated, or his organs stolen, then no one can be brought to justice for it since, legally, such a child does not exist,” she said.
Artashes himself is worried by his lack of documents, and has his own ideas how to regulate the situation.
“As soon as I become a lawyer, I will change the laws so a child gets a birth certificate immediately after birth,” he said.
Arpi Makhsudyan is a journalist with Capital newspaper.
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