Access to Legal Identity is Crucial for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration

By Ola Henrikson | IOM Regional Director for the EU, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.

As we mark this year’s International Migrants Day, IOM urges the EU and states to redouble efforts to ensure better access to legal identity and adequate documentation so that all can enjoy the benefits of safe, orderly and regular migration.

Everyone has the right to be recognized as a person before the law. Today, this may sound so self-evident as to be absurd. In fact, this right is so important it is enshrined in Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Yet, an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide cannot officially prove their legal identity.

The implications of this are more far reaching than we may realize, touching on the development of countries, the movement of people, and the goals of achieving universal equality and rights. Both the practical and the aspirational aspects of legal identity are wound into the migration and development policies and issues that concern the European Union (EU). 

Reliable access to health, education, housing, banking, jobs, justice, emergency assistance, safe and regular travel all depend on proof of legal identity, which is defined as a recognized credential such as birth certificate, identity card, travel document or digital identity certification.

Making access to legal identity – and thus to basic services and essential rights – easier for more people can play an important role in improving development outcomes and safer migration. In September 2015, UN Member States agreed on a sustainable development target to provide legal identity, including free birth registrations, to all by 2030. In most cases, countries which systematically provide legal identity also have a higher GDP. 

We also know that well managed migration can benefit both countries of origin and destination. Yet lacking proof of legal identity is particularly concerning for people on the move. People without this essential identifier are are more susceptible to risky, irregular migration – often at the hands of human traffickers and criminal smuggling groups. The ability to reunite with family abroad, or even to return safely to a country of origin, may equally depend on confirming one’s legal identity.

Migrants and other people without a registered legal identity cannot access a wide range of public or private services, despite being rights holders. When a migrant is caught up in a crisis event or disaster, being unable to prove legal identity restricts access to critical services, including international evacuation assistance. Furthermore, practices such as traffickers withholding identity documents are alarmingly effective measures that prevent victims from accessing services or receiving assistance.

Strategically and consistently addressing access to legal identity both for migrants and populations at large presents clear benefits for the EU: strengthened immigration and border management, visa facilitation, family reunification, assistance with voluntary return, diaspora voting, and assistance to vulnerable migrants. Moreover, the sudden disruption of global mobility due to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that health data linked to a specific legal identity will be increasingly important to meeting future criteria for secure and orderly entry into countries.

There are three fundamental steps that can be taken to move towards a more inclusive and effective legal identity ecosystem. One, we need to support national civil registration and identity management systems to facilitate migration and mobility. Two, we need to support the development of solutions for consular services to issue civil registration, ID, citizenship certificates and travel documents. Three, we also need to assist migrants without legal identity documents, especially those in the most vulnerable situations, through appropriate assistance services.

Improving the identification tools used are also important. Our own work on biometrics for border management and visa services suggests an evolution towards the use of digital technology to establish identity and facilitate access to services, while ensuring that people’s rights to privacy and data security are upheld. The full digitalization of legal identity towards eID and Authentication Services (eIDAS) is a priority for the EU’s own “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future”.

Supporting digital transformation in the EU by promoting digital proof of legal identity will be critical to Member States’ transition to e-governance. As we move into the future, capacity building for improved identification management will be needed, particularly when it concerns mobility and cross-border movements.

We often say that the universal aim is to leave no one behind. This is no less true for the over one billion people, including those on the move, without a legal identity. 

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities