Every year, Bahrain newspapers – and now social media too – erupt at intervals with headlines about babies and children abandoned by their parents. The pattern is pretty predictable – if they are babies, the decision to abandon them is usually the mother’s alone because she would have faced an illegal pregnancy or been abandoned herself by the father. If it were an older child, both parents would have taken the decision, often because they face the consequences of expired residency and work permits and the child too has no documentation.
In addition, there are also children being brought up in secret without documentation – no birth certificate or passports and no CPR.
Faced with a life in the shadows, these abandoned and undocumented children grow up in an atmosphere of uncertainty, with their parentage and their nationality in doubt and without access to things that are theirs as a birthright – education, health and a loving home.
Bahrain has always proven itself a country with a large heart and the kingdom has always made room to accommodate these abandoned children in its welfare umbrella, providing shelter, access to health and education services and a modicum of stability until the parents are either traced or the child is declared an orphan cared by the state.
Of course, when abandoned children are clearly of expatriate origin, the question of statehood is a tricky one and the children often have to face the test of statelessness when they grow up.
It figures therefore, that in cases where parentage can be traced, and the children can be proven to belong through parental rights to another country, these countries can work with Bahraini authorities and return the abandoned children to their families in country of origin.
The Philippines Embassy in Bahrain has moved purposefully to do just that and launched efforts to help over 50 undocumented children claim their nationality and even go back to the Philippines. It is a humanitarian move that can be a model for other countries, especially now that DNA testing technology and other tools of identification are easily accessible and the results more reliable.
We are now looking at the third decade of the 21st century and cannot afford to use an essentially broken system of ‘values’ to dictate how we shall shape the lives of future generations – especially when we don’t give that generation a voice or any rights in decision-making. I think that is at the heart of Bahrain’s humane approach towards abandoned children who get the benefit of all the basic rights except statehood.
In a world where we are seeing young people increasingly taking a stand about things that affect them – think Greta Thunberg and climate change, for example or Malala Yousafzai and the empowerment of the girl child – it won’t be long before we see children challenging social norms and forcing us to let go of our notions of legal and illegal family bonds and reconstructing society to give them all a fair chance.
Surely, if we can use AI and cloud computing for mundane things like paying utility bills and gaming, we can programme them to separate the circumstances of a child’s birth from the entitlement of a child to basic life necessities like healthcare and education and still keep records straight?