With help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Philippines is documenting members of the Sama Bajau community to legalize their Filipino citizenship.
The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia to have adopted a national action plan to end statelessness.
A documentation program sponsored by the UNHCR has sought to assure indigenous Sama Bajau people access to education, health care and housing in the Philippines.
It has identified the Sama Bajau as one of five population groups at risk.
There are about 10,000-15,000 Sama Bajau living in Zamboanga alone — 85 percent of whom have no birth certificates.
As a young girl, Wanita Arajani lived the traditional life of her nomadic people, who roamed the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia by boat, living from the sea.
Few went to school, learned to read or write or had citizenship.
“Before, having a birth certificate was not relevant or a priority,” said Arajani, now a grandmother in her 70s, as she sat outside the wooden house on stilts, east of Zamboanga City in the Philippines where her family now lives.
That life changed abruptly in 2013 when the Zamboanga conflict erupted after armed militants attempted to assert autonomy.
She said ensuing clashes drove her family and thousands of others to seek shelter in government-run evacuation centers.
Teachers at the evacuation centers encouraged families to send their children to nearby schools.
It was then that Arajami learned that her granddaughter would need a birth certificate to be able to progress through the education system.
She also discovered that documentation would be vital for family members to avoid arrest during security sweeps, and to allow the long-marginalized community access to health care and housing in the Philippines.
“It has been difficult for us to access services and we always feared discrimination, because we were Sama Bajau,” Arajani said.
“But when we get a birth certificate, we will feel more respected and be able to live life with dignity. I will feel valued as a citizen,” she added.
The Sama Bajau regard the sea as their home and living far from it was not their choice.
They were compelled to move under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act, which declared protected areas, including the coast where they live as no-build zones.
But having rights on dry land is also vital to them.
As part of a concerted push to resolve their situation, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has worked closely with the community, local government authorities and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples since 2016.
A pilot project supported by the UNHCR and United Nations Children’s Fund, which begins in October, seeks to register 1,500 people in the community.
Working closely with government authorities, including a mobile unit of the Civil Registrar’s Office, the aim is to issue families with documentation by mid-December.
“When they get their identification documents, it gives them better opportunities, particularly when it comes to getting an education and learning to read and write,” said Meriam Palma, UNHCR field associate for protection, who works on statelessness issues.
“It’s an important tool for them to be able to assert their rights as a tribe and as a people,” Palma added.
Before the drive got underway, Arajani had already succeeded in obtaining a birth certificate for her 15-year-old granddaughter Pirina, which she needed to be allowed to graduate from elementary school and attend junior high.
“I’m the only one in the family to have completed my elementary schooling,” said Pirina, whose graduation photo hangs in pride of place on the wall of the family home.
She added that she loves school because she likes learning, and the teachers are kind and good to her.
Pirina is also clear about how having a birth certificate will help her in the future.
“It will make it easier to have the chance to apply for jobs and find work.”
Arajani is also excited that the rest of her family will soon benefit from the pilot project.
Worldwide, millions of people like Wanita are at risk of statelessness and millions more are not recognized by any country as citizens and are stateless.
This can mean that basic things that most people take for granted, such as free movement, access to medical treatment, education, seeking a job or even buying an SIM (subscriber identification module) card for a mobile phone, can be a daily battle.