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Peace at last for sisters who ‘didn’t exist’

By Wendy Kwan

Hong Kong, 11 January 2021: It is hard to believe that a significant number of people in Hong Kong have never had their birth registered. It means they exist without a birth certificate and are forced to live life under the radar with no ID card or passport. They cannot attend school or visit a doctor and live in constant fear of their secret being discovered.

Recent statistics are unavailable, but figures released by the Immigration Department five years ago showed 71 known births between 1997 and 2015 were never registered. A further 543 births in that period were only registered after the infant turned one.

A 2018 report by the Ombudsman found most of these cases involved “complicated family problems” or mothers who had overstayed their visa. It criticised the Immigration Department’s inaction and led to a radical overhaul of investigations and follow-ups.

Hong Kong is not alone in having this problem. UNICEF estimates one in four children under the age of five – that is around 166 million globally – are not registered. “A birth certificate is proof of legal identity and is the basis upon which children can establish a nationality, avoid the risk of statelessness and seek protection from violence and exploitation,” says the organisation.

In 2019, Boase Cohen & Collins was contacted by PathFinders, an NGO which supports migrant mothers and their families, about an unusual case. Two Filipino sisters, born one year apart to an overstayed domestic helper, had been living here without any identity for almost 30 years.

Afraid of being arrested or having her children taken away, their mother did not register the births. The girls’ musician father disappeared when they were still toddlers. Mother and daughters moved home at least 15 times over the next three decades. The girls never attended school or went to hospital and received much of their learning from the TV, internet and books they borrowed with a friend’s library card.

The girls finally sought help from PathFinders in the latter half of 2019 as they were afraid of being stopped and searched in random ID checks on the street. We acted for the elder sister on a pro bono basis while two other law firms represented the younger sister and mother.

In October that year, the family surrendered to the Immigration Department and explained their hidden story. After a long day of interviews, they were released on bail of a nominal sum each with recognizance papers as proof of their identity.

BC&C continued giving legal assistance as the Immigration Department continued its investigation and the sisters awaited their birth registration. The process, made more difficult by the obvious lack of supporting documents, was finally completed after one year’s effort and the sisters, now aged 30 and 29, received their birth certificates from the birth registry office in Admiralty. The investigation was also closed.

The family’s amazing story, I’m pleased to say, has a happy conclusion. In late November, the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong issued mother and daughters with temporary travel documents, allowing them to fly to the Philippines to begin a new life there.

Wendy Kwan joined Boase Cohen & Collins in 2016 and has been an Associate since 2018. She has worked on a broad range of commercial litigation and is also experienced in handling non-contentious matters including company affairs, trademarks, wills and probate. She can be contacted at WendyKwan@boasecohencollins.com.

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