Fri 13 Dec 2019

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Syrians only in name: refugee children without Syrian nationality

 Syrian woman showing her papers to obtain a refugee status at UN in Lebanon (Reuters)

 Syrian woman showing her papers to obtain a refugee status at UN in Lebanon (Reuters)

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Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team

Zainab Masri | Taim al-Haj | Murad Abdul Jalil

It is 2030… Syrians are growing in number, but the population census is not increasing, real estate with no ownership registration, legacies with no heirs, the number of voters is less than before, and Syria is no more than a country of origin.

This is an imagined future of what the Syrian people would look like in ten years, in the event of the continuation of the Syrian refugees’ reluctance to register their newborns in Syrian official registers for financial and political reasons, and the inclination towards other nationalities of countries that will become home to a part of the Syrian population a generation from now.

Akram in Denmark, Mohammad, Abdul Majeed and Iman in Turkey and Raghib in Lebanon… are Syrian parents in the countries of asylum who share a nationality, yet their children have no common nationality of their country.

These cases are not an exception. According to an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page, on the Syrian refugees’ registration of their children abroad in the Syrian official registers, children of 82 percent of the more than 300 respondents have not yet obtained Syrian nationality identification papers.

Enab Baladi met with the five parents to find out about the phenomenon of non-registration of Syrian newborns abroad and the reasons that pushed them to do so. It also met with human rights activists and expeditors in Syria and countries of asylum, to diagnose the phenomenon in an attempt to find solutions.

In Europe and neighboring countries

Syrians do not bequeath their nationality to their children

After defecting from the regime’s army, Akram, a designer and photographer from Idlib, experienced a long asylum journey across the sea from Turkey to Greece, and then to Denmark to secure a new and stable life for his future son, who would later be born in the new country.

Syrian nationality was not among Akram’s options for his only son’s new life in Europe. After the baby’s birth, Akram did not register him at the Syrian civil status departments, arguing that registering Syrian children in the regime’s institutions is a sense of recognition of its legitimacy, so he “did not and will not do it.”

Akram, who asked not to be fully named for security reasons, believes that registering children is an issue which is not worth thinking about as “he has enough problems and worries that make him uninterested in this matter,” and he has never thought of returning to Syria after defecting from the regime’s military “except in the case of the fall of the regime.” Therefore, his son, born in Denmark and has a refugee status, will not return either.

Akram is not afraid of depriving his son of the rights of Syrian citizenship, and even “if the regime grants Syrian citizenship to my son, then we do not want it.” But in the event of the fall of the regime and the formation of an internationally recognized government, “there should be someone who will solve the problem,” he says.

Akram had only these justifications for not registering his son, given the ease of registering marriages and newborns in Europe, unlike the case in Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest gathering of Syrian refugees around the world.

Inspection of passports of Syrian refugees at the Turkish border crossing - September 10, 2013 (AP)

Inspection of passports of Syrian refugees at the Turkish border crossing – September 10, 2013 (AP)

An alternative home and Kimlik in Turkey

According to Article 12 of the Turkish Citizenship Law No. 5901, foreigners in Turkey can exceptionally obtain Turkish citizenship, provided that the person to be granted the citizenship poses no threat to Turkey’s national security, regardless of the other necessary conditions. The Turkish nationality should be obtained by a decision of the Council of Ministers.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in a press conference in August this year that 92,000 Syrians in Turkey have obtained the exceptional Turkish citizenship, 47,000 of whom are adults and 45,280 are children, and most of them are teachers, engineers and highly qualified people.

Mohammad and his family obtained exceptional Turkish citizenship after a Turkish government decree to naturalize Syrian teachers in Turkey holding university degrees. Mohammad did not register his third child, born in Turkey, in Syrian civil status departments, “because his son is now living as a Turkish citizen enjoying full rights in Turkey.”Mohammad al-Hasan, originally from the city of Deir ez-Zor, has been living in Turkey for six years and works as an imam of a mosque and a teacher of Islamic sciences. He refuses to register his son at government institutions in Syria.

“What is the use now of registering my son in Syria and his obtention of Syrian citizenship?” wondered Mohammed in an interview with Enab Baladi, pointing out that in case he returns to Syria in the future, “he might register his son.”

He added that his son could not be deprived of Syrian nationality and identity papers, considering that “it is obvious that any child whose parents are Syrian will be Syrian and get citizenship whenever he wants.”

Registration cost burdens refugees

There are different reasons for Syrians’ non-registration of their children born in the country of asylum at Syrian civil status departments, the most prominent of which is the high cost demanded by “brokers” of registration and identification papers in Syria.

The cost of registration starts from US $ 100, divided between the fees of the “broker” and the fees of the lawyer acting on behalf of the parents, and can rise following the lawyer’s demands.

According to an expeditor in Hama city, who Enab Baladi contacted and who asked not to be named for security reasons, the cost of registering a child may range from US $ 100 and US $ 500, if the parents’ marriage is officially registered in government departments. In case the marriage is not registered, the parents need to pay the marriage registration cost plus the registration cost according to the number of children.

On October 22, 2014, the Turkish government registered Syrians living in its territories in the Immigration Management Directorates at the Turkish governorates, giving them a “Temporary Protection Card”.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), temporary protection includes even Syrians who are unable to provide any official documents, including newborns. The number of Syrian children born in Turkey from 2011 to 2018 is estimated at 276,185, according to a special report published by the General Monitoring Institution of the Turkish Parliament on its official website.

Abdul Majeed Atiyah, father of three children, also confirmed this. After leaving the city of Raqqa and moving to an opposition-controlled area where he got married, he decided to move to live in Turkey, and had children.

Abdul Majeed and his family obtained a “temporary protection card” and could not register his three children in Syria, firstly because he did not know the registration requirements such as identification papers, and secondly because of the high registration cost requested by lawyers in Syria, which is a financial burden on him that his work in the maintenance of electrical appliances does not allow him to bear.

Fear of forged papers

According to the UNHCR, there are approximately ten million stateless people around the world, and children are the most vulnerable to statelessness and non-obtention of identity and identification papers, when they are born in foreign countries after their parents move due to compulsive circumstances, such as the wars in their countries. Laws become therefore complicated and loopholes in them abound, preventing children born inside or outside the country from obtaining identity or nationality.

Former Syrian media activist in the Syrian Revolutionary Movement, Iman (a pseudonym used by her), is aware of the risk of her six-year-old daughter being stateless, but “she cannot do anything about it”, as no one dared to complete the registration of her marriage in Turkey and the registration of her child, because both she and her husband are wanted by the Syrian regime.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Iman, 30, said that she prefers the non-registration of her daughter now for fear of fraudulent operations and forged papers, which may leave her in “mazes” in the refuge country. Proof of descent and registration of the child are further complicated by the subsequent death of Iman’s husband in Turkey.

The child received the Turkish Temporary Protection Card, which contains some spelling errors that can be rectified only by a family record book which is not available for the mother because of the non-registration of her marriage in Syria.

A piece of Syrian passport thrown in rubbish in a refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia, March 4, 2016 (AP)

A piece of Syrian passport thrown in rubbish in a refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia, March 4, 2016 (AP)

Compelled, or a deliberate choice?

Rami Assaf, a lawyer at the Free Lawyers Association in Turkey, believes that the non-registration of Syrian refugees of their children in Turkey is not due to negligence, but it is rather due to several factors, one of which is the material cost that a Syrian citizen needs to stabilize his marriage and register his child at the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul.

Syrians are obliged to travel to Istanbul Because Syrian refugee population is living now in southern Turkey. This means difficulties in obtaining a travel permit from the Turkish side, in addition to the travel cost, booking appointments at the consulate, and paying registration fees, that bring the cost of the whole process to about $ 1,000.

Assaf points out that many Syrians in the south are workers and unable to pay these costs. Although they are aware of the seriousness of the non-registration of children, but “all their concern is for their living, paying the rent for the house and stabilizing their current legal status.”

The other reason is the “revolutionary breath” of many Syrians living in Turkey and their lack of recognition of the regime and its consulate in Istanbul. They believe that after being displaced from their homes, it does not make sense to admit it once they enter the consulate.

According to lawyer Rami Assaf, the main reasons are related to the non-cooperation of the Syrian consulate. Although there are more than three million refugees in Turkey, the number of employees of the consulate does not exceed 12 employees, in addition to financial blackmail by paying for reservation along with registration fees.

Meanwhile, there is no initiative by human rights or humanitarian organizations in Turkey to take the responsibility of documenting the births of Syrians and bear the costs.

No alternative documentation in Lebanon

According to the latest statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Lebanon spokeswoman Lisa Abu Khaled, the number of Syrian children born in Lebanon reached 188 thousand between 2011 and 2019, only 30% of them are registered in the foreign record.

The 70% of unregistered births in the foreign record are documented by birth certificates attested by hospital administrators or legal midwives, and by mayors of areas where Syrians reside.

Refugee, Raghib Sallat, has three children, two of whom are among the 70% documented, with birth certificates only. He was unable to register them in Syrian records because he was wanted by the regime and because of the high financial cost, which caused him many problems in Lebanon.

Raghib, a Syrian mechanic who had been living in Lebanon for seven years, did not find a substitute for “registration extract or “Syrian identity” to register his daughter in Lebanese schools. The school refused to register his second daughter because there was no Syrian registration extract so he was obliged to enroll them in a Syrian school that accepts Syrian students who are not registered in a family record and have a birth certificate from Lebanese hospitals only.

Raghib’s first born child is registered in Syria and has a registration extract, and the other two were born on Lebanese territory and he could not register them when he went over the Syrian embassy in Lebanon where he discovered that the procedures were “impossible” and  he thus could not secure it.

Raghib informs Enab Baladi that the birth certificates obtained by his children, certified by the hospital director and the mayor of the area where he lives, sometimes help him to solve some of the problems he faces during his stay in Lebanon.  According to these certifications, his children received vaccine books, and he should show them as he passes through “gendarmerie barriers (police)” to confirm that he is the father of the children accompanying him.

A Syrian refugee with a passport and a child passes through the Turkish Silvigoso border gate with Syria, August 30, 2013 (AP)

A Syrian refugee with a passport and a child passes through the Turkish Silvigoso border gate with Syria, August 30, 2013 (AP)

Legal effects and calls to overcome the problem

Worrying future lurking for children who have not been granted citizenship

According to United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR), if the problem is not remedied as soon as possible, the conversion of Syrian children into stateless persons will have negative consequences in the future. The “unregistered children are particularly vulnerable to statelessness. Without birth certificates, they lack basic means that prove their nationality. They are also denied access to healthcare and education institutions and face an increased risk of exploitation, such as sex trade, illegal adoption or child labor. ”

According to lawyer Rami Assaf, children without Syrian citizenship, especially in Turkey and northern Syria, controlled by opposition factions because of the lack of civil records, will have no right at all from the Syrian state.

The lawyer points to the economic consequences of this and the deprivation of the person without nationality from his share in the inheritance that is transferred to him from the father or mother after their death because he is unregistered in the civil records in Syria, and does not have the nationality.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the independent Syrian lawyer Aref al-Shaal emphasizes that the unregistered children do not exist as Syrian citizens under Syrian law. Thus, this means depriving them of many rights, such as property rights and inheritance, in addition to civil and political rights, such as contributing to the establishment and affiliation of associations and parties and participation in elections.

Al-Shaal describes this as a “big problem”, since the legal basis for ownership, inheritance and contribution to civil and political life is the civil status records, which do not include the names of these children because they are unregistered.

However, al-Shaal does not see the possibility of comparing refugee children who did not have Syrian proofs and without other nationality to “Bidoon” (“Withouts”: persons who do not have any identification papers and are not recognized by any country). “As long as they proved that their father is Syrian, they are definitely Syrians under the Syrian nationality law.”

The Syrian Citizenship Law of 1969 provides that Syrian nationality shall be granted to a person born in or outside Syria by a Syrian father or a Syrian Arab mother whose attribution to his father has not been legally established. Thus, if the father is Syrian, the registration of children is almost a routine for lawyers by means of a “descent” claim, according to al-Shaal.

Al-Shaal calls the parents to carry out legal procedures to register the children, whether at the Syrian embassy in the expatriation country or in their Syrian civil register, through their agents or in their personal presence. In case the father is deceased, the mother or the grandfather can register him according to the nationality law.

According to the nationality law, if the father is unidentified, his lineage cannot be attributed to the mother. In this case this requires special legislation, according to al-Shaal.

For Syrians abroad, administrative instructions or decisions are needed to facilitate the recording of incidents at embassies or consulates, and overcome obstacles.

A Syrian refugee with his children in Harran camp in the Turkish province of Urfa officially known as (Şanlıurfa), 2016 (Reuters).

A Syrian refugee with his children in Harran camp in the Turkish province of Urfa officially known as (Şanlıurfa), 2016 (Reuters).

How to register your marriage and your children’s lineage in Syria?

Since their arrival in the countries of asylum, years ago, many Syrian refugees declined to have any ties with the Syrian state institutions, believing that those government facilities are controlled by the regime, which they hold responsible for their forced displacement, and leaving their country, homes and families behind.

For more than eight years, the Syrian refugees adapted with their new environment. They got jobs, carried out their studies, married and had children, while using only the official documents they obtained by the hosting countries that accepted the refugees’  the minimum identification documents the refugees managed to get away with from Syria and did not force them to deal with the Syrian authorities in order to get the missing official documents. Nonetheless, there are differences regarding the way each host country chooses to handle the situation.

Many refugees, however, are concerned about the issue of registering marriages and children in the Syrian Civil Affairs offices, as they consider legalizing their children’s status is vital in determining their fate in case they decided to return to Syria.

Marriage and children registration lawsuit

Syrian lawyer Houssam Sarhan explained to Enab Baladi the ways according to which a Syrian refugee can register his or her marriage, or register his or her child in the Syrian Civil Affairs offices.

The refugees, who have been married in countries of asylum and want to register their marriages in Syria, can file a lawsuit in this regard, referred to as marriage and children registration lawsuit.

In order to file a lawsuit, the husband and wife must appoint separate lawyers in Syria, through the Syrian consulate or embassy, ​​in the country of asylum.

The husband’s attorney will file a lawsuit against the wife’s attorney, so the latter acknowledges the case and confirms that “his client is married to his opponent’s client, and they had children following their matrimonial union.” In the end, a decision is issued by the judge to register the marriage and the children. Soon afterward, the registration order gets activated and is sent to civil records, according to Sarhan.

However, this lawsuit cannot be filed in the countries of asylum, as most countries have specific marriage contracts based on the state’s applicable law. Sarhan stated the instance of the Turkish laws, which require the couple to book an appointment in the municipality and register the marriage in the presence of both parties intending to wed exclusively.

Legal principle of marriage and children registration

Prior to 2011, the marriage and children registration procedures for Syrian expats were not as complicated as they are now.

In this context, Sarhan noted that the legal principle in this procedure is that the marriage registration is maintained at the competent legal department in the country where the Syrian citizen lives, which, sends, in turn, the marriage contract to the Syrian embassy or consulate. Afterward, the contract is sent to the concerned Civil Affairs office in Syria.

According to Sarhan, this applies to the registration of children as well, i.e. the countries of asylum used to send the child’s birth certificate, issued by the hospital, to the Ministry of Interior, which undertakes to forward the document to the Syrian Consulate. Thus, the Syrian consulate becomes responsible, from that point on, for sending the birth certificate to the Civil Affairs office in Damascus. Later, the birth certificate goes to the registration office of the area from which the refugee comes.

However, these measures are no longer employed, according to Sarhan, due to the fact that the Syrian regime’s diplomatic ties with most of the countries, hosting Syrian refugees, are cut.

Syrian refugee showing his passport after being rescued by a Greek Coast Guard patrol boat – May 29, 2015 (Reuters)

Syrian refugee showing his passport after being rescued by a Greek Coast Guard patrol boat – May 29, 2015 (Reuters)

Marriage registration comes first

Many Syrian refugees in countries of asylum, who want to register their marriage and children in Syria, are hindered by the complexity of the procedures imposed on them due to the reality on the ground, i.e. in terms of the Syrian regime’s isolation from most countries of the world.

Enab Baladi searched the official websites of the Syrian regime’s embassies and consulates in most countries hosting Syrian refugees, and managed to get answers to most of the refugees’ questions about the ways of registering marriages and childbirths with Syrian Civil Affairs offices via those consulates and embassies.

While Syrian consulates in most European countries offer the possibility of registering marriages, legalized in countries of asylum, in Syrian Civil Affairs Offices, this cannot be done in Turkey, home to more than three million Syrian refugees, according to Turkish official figures.

The instructions published on the website of the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul are limited to the steps of children registration and the amounts to be paid. Thus, the website does not contain any information about the registration of the Syrian refugees’ marriages in Turkey, meaning that the children registration process will be equally challenging in later stages.

Regarding the work of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul and the services it provides to Syrian refugees, Alaa al-Hussein, director of the legal services office, said that the Syrian consulate has no jurisdiction to register marriages; as such the legal process can only be preceded in Sharia courts in Syria, after hiring lawyers. Al-Hussein also indicated that each sect has its own Sharia court.

He added that before registering the marriage contract, which is issued by court, it has to be signed by the Attorney General in Syria and the Justice Department. Afterward, the contract goes to the in the Civil Affairs Department and gets registered in its electronic portal so that the concerned party can obtain the contract in Turkey and certify it at the Syrian Consulate.

After that the marriage contracts need to be translated and registered with a Turkish notary, and then sent to the office of the Qaim Maqam. Then, the marriage becomes registered at the Syrian civil register and recognized by the Turkish government departments.

Regarding the registration of children in Syria through the consulate, al-Hussein said that the family should initially have a Syrian family health record, marriage statement, family statement or a marriage contract issued by a Sharia court.

He explained that following a child’s birth in a Turkish hospital, a birth certificate must be obtained in order to permit the family to register the newborn in the Turkish Civil Registration Department. The next step consists of translating the birth certificate in Arabic, register it with a Turkish notary, to be signed later by the Turkish governor. The concerned party then must book an appointment in the Civil Status Office at the Syrian Consulate in order to legalize the certificate, which will be sent to Syria to be registered in the Civil Registration Department by a first-degree relative or a lawyer.

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