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Denied birth certificates, thousands of children in the UAE go without schooling and health care

Hospitals withhold birth records because of unpaid debts, and the government refuses to register those born out of wedlock

Human rights activists estimate thousands of children in the United Arab Emirates, many of them born to migrant workers from Africa and Asia, are unregistered because of government policies. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

DUBAI — Chinwe’s sons are 4 and 6, yet officially they don’t exist. After she gave birth, Chinwe and her husband could not afford to pay the medical bills, totaling $16,000, and the hospital refused to give them the documents needed for birth certificates until the debt was settled, she said.

Among hospitals in the United Arab Emirates, this is not an uncommon practice. But it has contributed to a growing population of undocumented children in this Gulf Arab country who are unable to enroll in school, get health care or even claim nationality.

“My sons have not been to school; they don’t have a visa or a passport. It is a very big issue. They cry — they really want to go to school,” said Chinwe, 37, a migrant from Nigeria who works as a low-paid classroom assistant and spoke on condition that her last name not be published out of security concerns. Her husband is unemployed.

Human rights activists estimate that thousands of children in the UAE, many of them born to migrant workers from Africa and Asia, are unregistered either because hospitals withheld documents or because the children were born out of wedlock. Babies born to single mothers are typically refused a birth certificate because extramarital sex is illegal in the country.

Just within the country’s Filipino migrant community, the number of undocumented children runs in the thousands, according to two senior Philippine government officials.

The oil-rich UAE is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, per capita, and high standards of private education and medical care are enjoyed by most citizens and white-collar expatriate workers. But for undocumented children, these basic services are out of reach. Like the parents of eight other undocumented children interviewed for this article, Chinwe said her sons have never seen a doctor or received childhood vaccines.

Chinwe and her husband said their sons’ status has left their family living in dread. “We are never relaxed about it,” she said. “We hardly go out. Most of the times, my husband is indoors because we don’t want issues with the police. We are scared.”

The Emirati government’s media office declined to answer questions about undocumented children.

While it is illegal for hospitals to withhold birth documentation over unpaid bills, the practice often goes unchallenged because, some parents said, they are afraid to alert the police and face legal consequences over their debts.

“This is blackmailing and hijacking somebody’s identity,” said Ludmila Yamalova, a Dubai-based lawyer.

Pearl, 32, a Filipina restaurant worker, gave birth to a daughter last March in a government hospital in Dubai. The baby was premature, and the bill for her two-month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit amounted to $29,000, more than three years’ pay, recalled Pearl. She said she could not afford it. The hospital would not provide the documents necessary to obtain a birth certificate.

The hospital agreed to release Pearl and her daughter only on the condition that she write a check for the full amount as a guarantee. The check has since bounced, a criminal offense in the UAE.

“I lost everything and have nothing,” said Pearl, who withheld her last name out of fear she would face reprisals from UAE authorities for speaking to the press. “Now I need to turn myself in to the police.”

In some cases, women who do not have insurance or the means to pay are turned away from emergency rooms during labor, said Ekaterina Porras Sivolobova, director of Do Bold, an organization that supports migrant workers in the Persian Gulf.

“Other mothers are made to surrender their passports before they are allowed to leave the hospital with an unpaid bill,” Sivolobova said. “Threats are common. In one instance last year, a hospital threatened to take a child away from its mother over the unpaid bill.”

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An even larger factor in the growth of the undocumented population is the Emirati requirement that a marriage certificate be produced to register children and obtain a birth certificate, according to Yamalova and foreign diplomats. And the problem is not unique to the UAE. In several other Middle Eastern countries, a ban on extramarital sex leaves children who are born out of wedlock undocumented.

Extramarital sex has long been illegal under the UAE’s Islamic laws. But in November 2020, it was decriminalized, a step taken along with other measures aimed at making the country more appealing to Westerners at a time when the pandemic-battered economy needed a boost.

Some hospitals, however, continued to call the police when single women gave birth. Yamalova recalled, for instance, that one of her pro bono clients was an unmarried mother who was handcuffed and arrested last August after giving birth to a premature baby.

Last month, as a result of what legal experts say was pushback from conservatives, the law changed again, and having a child out of wedlock now carries a penalty of two years in jail.

“They were arguing against [decriminalization], saying no, the values and morals of the society take supremacy,” said Habib Al Mulla, a partner at the Baker McKenzie law firm and former Emirati legislator.

To strike a balance between liberals and conservatives, the new law sets out several ways to avoid prosecution, including the child’s parents subsequently marrying or following certain administrative processes to acknowledge their child. For blue-collar migrant workers, the costs of taking these steps can be prohibitive.

It can also be difficult for these low-paid migrant workers to fly back to their home countries and give birth there. Not only is the cost of travel unaffordable in many instances, but many migrant workers in the UAE are required to turn over their passports to their employers and find it a challenge to get them back.

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When the time came for Kate to give birth to her son in Dubai, she knew she would face arrest if she went to the hospital because she wasn’t married, she said. Instead, the 32-year-old part-time office worker from the Philippines sought the help of a black-market midwife.

“It’s illegal. The midwife is also afraid,” said Kate, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be published out of concern for her safety. “You can’t shout, and must push silently, which is very impossible.”

She has been unable to obtain a birth certificate for her son. “I really want him to get documents,” Kate said. “He’s not been immunized yet. It worries me so much.”

The pandemic has made the problem more urgent. Job losses have left migrants struggling to meet basic needs. Yet those with stateless children are unable to return home because they lack documents.

Meanwhile, these children are growing up in the shadows of UAE society, their futures uncertain.

“It’s a floating, invisible population that is facing greater difficulties,” said Froilan Malit Jr., a migration specialist at the University of Cambridge. “The pressures on mothers intensify.”