Misplaced Pasts: Registering Aboriginal Births

By Sonia Nair | 27 Jun 12

This article is part of our June theme, which focuses on Indigenous People and their human rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

Arinya* is a single mother with four children under the age of nine. Although all her children’s births have been registered, only the eldest two have birth certificates as the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages does not automatically issue birth certificates upon registration of birth. However, enrolment in school and child support from her ex-husband requires she supply a birth certificate for all children. Subsisting on a very low income, Arinya does not have the money to pay her state Registry to produce the birth certificates. As she pleads for money from her relatives, her younger children are unable to attend school and she is unable to receive child support.

A member of the Stolen Generations, Oola* knew little about her family’s history and as a result never fully participated in society – evidenced by the fact that she did not have a birth certificate, had never voted and did not have a driver’s license. An elderly woman steadily progressing into her twilight years, Oola needed a copy of her birth certificate in order to receive an estate payment so she made inquiries with the Registry. Finally, a birth record was located in a rural hospital – sufficient evidence to accord Oola a birth certificate some 70 years after her inception. Sadly, Oola died before the certificate was ever issued.

Such are just two of the human rights infringements befalling Aboriginal people as a result of low birth registrations and the difficulties they encounter in obtaining a copy of their birth certificates. Data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2010 show that there were around 16,100 births registered in Australia with one or both parents identified as Indigenous – approximately 5 per cent of all births registered.

“This figure probably underestimates the true number slightly as Indigenous status is not always identified and there may be a lag in birth registrations,” the Australian Indigenous Health Info Net said.

Two factors are said to lie behind why a person may not have a birth certificate: the fact that the birth was never registered or the fact that the birth was registered but a certificate was never issued at the time. Obtaining a birth certificate later in life has been fraught with difficulty for many Aboriginal people, as the two situations above demonstrate.

Although a birth certificate often sits long forgotten in the depths of an average Australian’s mound of identification documents, Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Dr. Paula Gerber, says a birth certificate is absolutely vital for an individual to fully participate in society.

“A birth certificate is the gateway to the full enjoyment of the rights of citizenship. In particular, you need a birth certificate in order to obtain a passport, get a driver’s license, attain a tax file number and one is also frequently required in order to access social security and open a bank account.”

Gerber highlights the fact that participation rights in activities as simple as an under 14s football team can be jeopardised by the absence of a birth certificate.

In recognition of how important the issue of birth registrations are to the landscape of Aboriginal human rights, Gerber – along with other esteemed researchers – were entrusted with an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant to investigate why such low rates of birth registrations exist in Aboriginal communities.

Why is there such a low rate of Aboriginal birth registrations?

Although there is not yet any empirical evidence as to the “why” question, Gerber says low rates of birth registration are more prevalent in non-metropolitan areas for a number of reasons.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests the reasons might include distrust of the government in a legacy of the Stolen Generations; literacy levels; lack of awareness of the importance of birth registrations; difficulties accessing the system, particularly from remote and rural locations and the fact that you have to pay a fee for a birth certificate, although the registration process itself is free.”

Lawyer, mediator and community development worker Joel Orenstein, who published a paper in 2008 entitled Being Nobody – The Difficulties Faced by Aboriginal Victorians in Obtaining Identification, pointed to other reasons that could lie behind Aboriginal people’s low rate of birth registrations.

“Registry does not accept health care cards or proof of Aboriginality documents obtained from a recognised Aboriginal organisation as valid proof-of-identity documents. These documents are the most common proof-of-identity documents available to Aboriginal people,” Orenstein says in his paper.

The complex family backgrounds of Aboriginal people are another deterrent, according to Orenstein, as many Aboriginal people are unaware of their “true histories due to conflicting versions of family history and displacement of communities”.

Further, certain Registries only allow a police officer to certify supplementary identity documents, which can be off-putting for many Aboriginal people because, as Orenstein notes, “the relationship between Aboriginal people and the police has traditionally been, and often continues to be, one of mutual conflict and mistrust”.

Other factors that lie behind the low rate of birth registrations among Aboriginal people include the constant movement of families across state borders – complicated by the fact that the Registry in each state differs to that of the next – and a lack of confidence when it comes to adhering to complex registry forms and requirements.

What is being done to resolve this?

Other than the research that Gerber and her fellow researchers have been commissioned to carry out, the Victorian Registry embarked on a tour of communities in regional Victoria – resulting in 312 birth certificates and 53 birth registrations – and liaised with Centrelink to ensure that payment of the Baby Bonus and parenting payments are tied to registration of birth. Apart from that, Victoria has launched the ‘Registering a birth’ initiative.

However, there is still much more than can be done to boost levels of Aboriginal birth rate registrations at the federal level. Concession rates for birth certificates could be adopted by Registries, and they could change their policies in terms of the types of supplementary documentation they accept, as well as widening the scope of who can certify the documents beyond the police force.

The fundamental right to identity, as mandated by the International Covenant of Civil and Police Rights, symbolises a cornerstone in the broader recognition of a person’s status in community and their citizenship in a country. An illustration of the importance of birth registrations is deftly captured in a favourite quote of Gerber’s by South African activist Desmond Tutu.

“Birth registration is much more than an administrative procedure. It is a key event in a child’s life. This is because birth registration acts as the starting point for engagement between the state and the individual. Registering a child at birth signifies the state’s recognition of the child’s existence and acceptance of its responsibility to ensure the child enjoys the rights and privileges that he or she is entitled to throughout life.”

*Names are fictional.