Why are so many Syrian children being left stateless?

Syrian Refugee Image Source: European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr, Creative Commons

Syrian Refugee
Image Source: European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr, Creative Commons

Aleppo, Syria (openDemocracy) – According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of multiple hardships impacting some of the over three million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries since the start of the conflict is the problem of statelessness. This is not only an issue for Syrians whose personal documents were lost or destroyed in Syria. Among the most vulnerable are children of single mothers with no present fathers. It is nearly impossible for these mothers to register their children’s nationality. The consequences are grave: children may be denied basic services such as education and healthcare, including vaccinations, and they may be unable to return to Syria.

Why are so many Syrian children being left stateless? Syria openly embraces the principle of jus sanguinis, which confers the right of nationality by law to be determined by having one or both parents who are citizens of the state. However, article 3 of the Syrian Nationality Act deems persons born outside of the country to be entitled to citizenship only if they are born to a Syrian father. The Legislative Decree explains that the children of a Syrian woman and a non-Syrian father cannot be granted citizenship because “a Syrian woman’s marriage to a “foreigner” is likely to weaken the “inclination” for ‘national patriotism’ in children, since such mothers “do not feel that tendency.” Instead, the Decree explains, they are likely to “instill in their children’s minds the love for their (Father’s) countries and ethnicity, instead of teaching them to love their nation and homeland (Syria).”

Syria has a history of passing laws that lead to statelessness and adversely impact the everyday affairs of minorities in Syria. When Legislative Decree No. 93 was passed in 1962, close to 120,000 Syrian Kurds were stripped of theirnationality when they couldn’t prove they had been living in Syria since 1945. They lost all rights to claim Syrian citizenship and were effectively left stateless. Syrian-born Kurds whose fathers were stripped of their Syrian nationality face tremendous difficulties in their everyday lives. They are not permitted to own land, housing or businesses; or be employed at government agencies or state-owned enterprises; and they cannot practice as doctors or engineers. They are also ineligible for food subsidies or admission to public hospitals. They may not legally marry Syrian citizens, and if they do, the marriages are not legally recognized for either the citizen or the “foreigner,” and both spouses are described as unmarried on their identity cards. Additionally, the state will not issue passports or other travel documents to Kurds with “foreigner” status, thereby barring them from legally leaving or returning to Syria. This issue heavily impacts Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing the conflict who have sought refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. According to a 2013 survey, about 10 percent of these refugees are currently stateless.

Over the last ten years, the women’s rights movement in Syria has worked to amend the Nationality Law. In 2004, the Syrian Women’s League presented a memorandum to Parliament that called on the government to remove the discriminatory provision barring women from passing on their nationality to their children. A year later, the League presented a petition signed by thousands calling for the law to be amended. The Presidential Palace forwarded the memorandum to the Ministry of Justice and formed a committee to discuss the amendment, resulting in the Ministry’s support for changing the law. In 2006, the League called on the head of Parliament and the Prime Minister to support the law amendment and bring Syrian law into regional compliance. However, Parliament voted against this amendment in 2008, arguing that such an amendment would be contrary to Sharia law, based on the interpretation that a child’s identity originates from the father’s name and nationality.

The campaign did succeed in turning the right of Syrian women to grant citizenship to their children into an issue of public opinion. In 2011, joining in a larger coalition of civil society organizations, the Syrian Women’s League presented a new bill to the new Parliament. Again, a committee was formed to discuss amending the law. League members met with representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of External and Internal Affairs to discuss the proposed amendment, but the bill was not presented to Parliament for a vote before the current conflict began. The protracted conflict, which caused the Syrian refugee crisis, effectively placed on hold any progress on the legal changes the League had fought so tirelessly for.

As with the Kurds, the Nationality law has devastating impacts on the civil and economic rights of Syrian women and their children. For example, children of marriages between Syrian women and foreign spouses cannot inherit property, lack access to free education and have limited access to health care, social security and other benefits available to nationals, leading to instability and marginalization. They have difficulty obtaining employment and are often barred from starting a private business because non-Syrians are ineligible to buy or lease property.

Statelessness is a critical issue for Syrian refugees whose children are born from rape or from religious ceremonial marriages where the couple never completed the process of legal marriage or birth registration. For those who divorce or become single mothers under these conditions, it is extraordinarily difficult to register their children’s nationality. Lack of registration not only means no access to social services; it also leaves stateless individuals more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation including trafficking, forced labor, and sexual exploitation.

Particularly under these harsh circumstances, control over one’s fertility and legal status become paramount. Dozens of Syrian women activists have underscored the need for contraception as an immediate safety and survival issue. Additionally, single and expecting mothers need information in an accessible form on marriage and birth registration. Amongst the most urgent needs Syrian women refugees have identified are reproductive health services and psycho-social and legal support to access rights. A needs assessment conducted by MADRE in Zata’ari, a refugee camp in Jordan, found that reproductive health needs, including pre- and post-natal care, support during delivery, newborn care, and family planning were major concerns for women in the camp.

Syrian women advocates recognize the links between the crisis of statelessness and the lack of reproductive justice for women. Additionally, they understand that in the long term, to ensure that both the legal framework and the enforcement mechanisms to prevent and address statelessness are a priority in post-conflict Syria, women must be involved now in the processes that will lead to peace and rebuilding.

It is imperative at this time to lay the foundation for Syrian women to build the skills, leadership and networks needed to make their voices heard and to create channels of communication and consultation between women refugees and representatives and policymakers. If they continue to be excluded from peace negotiations, history teaches us that women will lose out on a key opportunity for justice. If women are meaningfully included in these processes, this will lay the groundwork for systemic legal and social change that will support women’s rights, and will undo current laws that violate international human rights standards. This could include ultimately removing impediments to women’s abilities to make autonomous decisions about their private lives, including control over their reproductive health and sexuality, by initiatives such as amending the Nationality law. It could also include ending forced marriage, criminalizing all forms of rape, including spousal rape, as well as addressing and outlawing discrimination against women in property and inheritance laws, and in personal status laws that govern rights for families.

We need to get to the root of the problem of statelessness amongst the Syrian refugee population, which is the need for systemic change and policy reform, so that one day all Syrians may return to their homeland.

Written by Lisa Davis for openDemocracy.