Not Syrian, not Turkish: Refugees fleeing war lack documentation

Without passports, desperate refugees turn to forgeries to escape their paperless limbo

Mahmoud Ali, his wife Iman Omar, and their two children, Ayşe Nur and Zakariya Can, both born in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Tania Karas

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — For Mahmoud Ali and Iman Omar, both Syrian refugees from Aleppo, life in exile is bittersweet. The couple is far from home. They don’t know if they can ever return, but at least here they can be together. They escaped separately to this southern Turkish city 40 miles from the Syrian border and, free of the chaos of war, were able to marry in 2013.

Starting a family in exile, however, brought with it a host of administrative problems. Because Ali and Omar wed only in a religious ceremony in Turkey, their marriage is not recognized by the Turkish government. And their children, 2-year-old Ayşe Nur and 1-year-old Zakariya Can — both born on Aug. 26, one year apart — are not nationals of any country. Though they have hospital-issued birth reports and temporary identity cards from the Turkish government, the children are not Turkish citizens. (Like most other countries neighboring Syria, Turkey does not automatically grant citizenship to babies born on its land.) And 28-year-old Ali, who abandoned his post as a police officer, a federal crime in Syria, is too fearful of his own government to contact his embassy about his children’s nationality.

“They are not Syrian, they are not Turkish,” Ali said as he watched them dash through their sparse two-room home. “They just exist as you see them.”

The family’s plight is just one example of the massive documentation crisis facing Syrian refugees, who are now estimated to number 4.1 million. Most have fled to nearby Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey has taken in the most, 1.9 million, and has spent more than $5.5 billion to assist them, according to the Turkish Prime Ministry Disaster & Emergency Management Authority, or AFAD. Gaziantep alone has absorbed 300,000 Syrians.

A few hundred thousand more live in the country but choose not to register with AFAD, some because Turkey is just a stop on their journey to Europe. Others fear that registering may somehow alert Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of their whereabouts. 

An official Syrian ‘family booklet,’ which records all the members of a family.
Tania Karas

Many refugees left behind crucial papers such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, passports and ID cards when they were forced to abandon their homes. Sealed borders and a complex map of unfriendly and terrorist-controlled territories within Syria mean those documents are nearly impossible to obtain now — unless, of course, refugees can pay high sums for forgeries. 

Family books, which are issued by the Syrian government and document the members of a family, can fetch up to $1,000, according to several refugees interviewed in Gaziantep. Fake passports start at around $450, depending on quality. Real, stolen passports sell for much more. (This past spring, the Syrian government announced it would allow citizens who fled to neighboring countries to apply for new or renewed passports, even if the people defected or didn't complete mandatory military service. But many, like Ali, are wary of any contact with their government.)

Those who register with AFAD are granted “temporary protection,” a special legal status for Syrians in Turkey that gives them access to education, health care and other social services. But it doesn’t grant them the benefits of permanent or legal short-term residency: eligibility for employment, the right to travel abroad and return to Turkey, open a bank account, or rent an apartment. Only citizens or legal residents can do that. 

We are at the mercy of the Turkish authorities. What if there is a regime change here and the support for the Syrian people is gone?

Syrian refugee in Turkey

More than four years into the Syrian civil war, refugees are desperate to escape this paperless limbo and apply for permanent residency in Turkey. One 26-year-old man from Aleppo, who asked not to be named, said he paid $450 for an official passport extension sticker when his passport expired. Though the sticker was genuine, the means by which it was obtained — by theft, allegedly, from a government office in Damascus — was underhanded. Yet he needed it to reapply for a Turkish permit to continue his job and studies in Gaziantep.

“It was the only option,” said the man, an activist during the 2011 revolution who didn’t complete his military service before he fled the country. “If I went to my embassy [for a renewal], maybe they would take my passport and not give it back.”

The sticker is insurance for his future: “We are at the mercy of the Turkish authorities,” he said. “What if there is a regime change here and the support for the Syrian people is gone? Then what?”

Indeed, after two months of failed coalition talks, Turkey is headed toward a do-over of its parliamentary elections on Nov. 1. The fate of more than 2 million Syrian refugees hangs in the balance. On the campaign trail this past spring, opposition party leaders explicitly said they wanted to send the refugees home

Mahmoud Ali, a Syrian refugee, shows his wedding photo. He and his wife, Iman Omar, married in Gaziantep, Turkey in 2013.
Tania Karas

“We know temporary protection will continue, but for how long?” asked Öykü Tümer, an attorney with Refugee Rights Turkey, a legal services group in Istanbul. “How can people make plans for the future?”

The stakes are especially high for babies, an increasing number of whom are being born without proper documentation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that an entire generation is at risk of statelessness — without a nationality and therefore without the protection of any government.

Complicating matters further, Syrian nationality laws only allow children to obtain citizenship through their fathers. But many men “have either died in combat or regime bombardments or are fighting among opposition ranks,” an AFAD spokesman said. Women outnumber men in Turkey’s 25 refugee camps, and many are single mothers with small children.

At least 100,000 babies have been born to Syrian parents in exile over the past five years, according to the European Commission’s humanitarian arm. Turkey is home to at least 60,000 such infants, AFAD said, and another 70 are born here each day.

The full effects of a generation of stateless Syrians may not be felt for a few years. When the fighting ends, those unable to prove their Syrian citizenship may be unable to go home.

“The sheer volume of exodus of Syrian refugees, coupled with obstacles to birth registration as well as destroyed civil registries and gender discriminatory nationality laws, constitute a toxic mix and a ticking time bomb in terms of the risk of childhood statelessness,” said Chris Nash, director of the European Network on Statelessness, a coalition of human rights groups. 

We give them a paper, but it doesn’t give them any rights. [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is doing the same.

Mahmoud Hassoun

head of nursing in a hospital in Aleppo

Even children born within Syria these days are not guaranteed citizenship. Those born in territories held by nonregime groups — which could tally well into the thousands — are not recorded on government rolls. Mahmoud Hassoun, head of nursing for the only hospital in the rebel-held part of Aleppo with a birthing facility, said his hospital sees 150 to 170 births per month.

“We give them a paper, but it doesn’t give them any rights,” Hassoun said via Skype. “[Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is doing the same. But parents cannot go to the regime side with this paper and get a birth certificate.” His own two boys, ages 2 years and 6 months, are not registered with the Syrian government.

In Turkey, getting a Syrian birth certificate requires parents to travel to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. The office, in the posh neighborhood of Nişantaşi, usually has a line stretching down the block. Here, parents must present original family books and marriage licenses to get the certificate.

That’s impossible for Mahmoud Ali and Iman Omar. The Syrian government has no record of their marriage. Nor does the marriage meet Turkish standards: Turkey requires couples to present notarized certificates showing they are single before it will issue a marriage license. But that paperwork comes from local governments, and most refugees are unable to return home to get it.

Ali, who works off the books as a carpenter, said he defected from the police force after the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra infiltrated his hometown and killed his brother.

He wouldn’t even try going to his consulate, he said, because he believes he is wanted by the Syrian regime. He knows of document forgers offering family books for only 75 Turkish lira, or $25, but it wouldn’t help in his situation, he believes. 

Syrian refugees walk among tents at Karkamiş refugee camp on Jan. 16, 2014, near the town of Gaziantep, Turkey.
Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Images

Others are better positioned to obtain citizenship for their children, such as 25-year-old Asmaa Dada. She gave birth to her first child, a boy named Amro, in Gaziantep three months ago. She had come to Turkey from outside Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that is now the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

Dada fled without her family book and other identity papers. But her uncle brought the documents when he came to Turkey months later. Dada said she plans to visit the consulate in Istanbul before her son turns 1.

“Others cannot do this. We were lucky we could get the family book,” said Dada, who works as an information officer at a community center for Syrians in Gaziantep. 

Majed Khatib, a Syrian lawyer and member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, issues birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates from his office in Gaziantep, Turkey. He is pictured here with the ledgers where he records what he has issued so far.
Tania Karas

Across town, at the offices of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, lawyer Majed Khatib wages a one-man crusade to document the milestones of his peoples’ lives in exile. He lists births, marriages, deaths and divorces by hand in thick black ledgers and gives out documents with official-looking Syrian government stamps to those who request them.

“I realized we are in front of a huge papers problem,” he said when asked why he began doing this, in 2013. That year, he gave out about 400 documents, and so far in 2015 he has handed out 639. The paperwork isn’t officially recognized by a single foreign government, though the embassies of Germany, France, Sweden, Austria and Denmark have accepted it for humanitarian purposes, Khatib said.

“The [Syrian] regime is not just attacking people by shelling,” he said. “It is also attacking them by not giving them their papers and their civil rights.”

Glancing back at his ledgers, he added, “This is the best we can do.”

Muhammed Almahmoud contributed to this story.

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