Over the past several years, many Syrians have resorted to taking life-threatening journeys over land or by rickety boat to escape the conflict in their country.
Violence, a crumbling economy and political instability are to blame, of course. But a lack of documentation significantly exacerbates the problem. Without a passport, Syrians cannot seek refuge abroad by boarding international commercial flights or passenger ships with strict safety requirements. And without a passport, Syrian refugees may not be able to re-enter their country if and when stability is restored.
In 2013 fewer than 30 percent of Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey with a passport. Two years later, it is likely that even fewer people possess valid passports, because they have expired while people live in exile and they cannot request and retrieve new passports, given the raging armed conflict. It is more likely that most Syrians, whether still in Syria or living abroad as refugees, are without any effective documentation.
In addition to the Syrians whose passports have expired, hundreds of thousands of children born during the armed conflict without a birth certificate are at risk of being unrecognized as Syrian citizens and are therefore more likely to be officially stateless.
Five years into the war, Syrians need a safe way to document the births of babies born after the start of the conflict and to receive and renew passports.
In March, Refugees International (RI) went to Turkey to learn more about the risk of statelessness for Syrian newborns and children. We found that startlingly few Syrian children born in Turkey — possibly fewer than 5 percent — have an official birth certificate. In our report, we identified ways that the Turkish government could collect critical data on fathers during the refugee registration process and better educate themselves and Syrians on the process of acquiring an international birth certificate through the Turkish government. For example, Turkish government officers who deal with Syrian refugees and particularly those who meet with Syrian parents should be trained on the importance of birth registration and certification processes and be able to explain them to Syrian parents either in Arabic or through an interpreter.
While Syrian parents may register their children’s birth at the Syrian consul in Istanbul, the fathers and mothers RI met were afraid to approach the consul because they feared being identified as an opponent of the regime — which could put their lives in danger. Not surprisingly, this included fighters of the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups. However, it also included doctors and other health care workers as well as human rights defenders and political activists.
The promise of peace and stability, not access to Syrian consuls, will ultimately permit Syrians to exercise their right to return.
Another problem is Syrian nationality law, which permits fathers but not mothers to pass citizenship to their children, with few exceptions. Because so many fathers have gone missing, died or are fighting in the conflict, hundreds of thousands of refugee families around the region are headed by mothers. If their fathers are not present to register their children with the Syrian government or the children have no proof of a Syrian father, they may not be able to assert their claim to Syrian nationality. Unrecognized by both Syria and their countries of refuge, these children will be stateless and may be prevented from attending school, accessing health care, working legally or voting. And without proof of their age and identity, they will also be more vulnerable to trafficking, exploitative early marriages and recruitment as child soldiers.
The rules on issuing passports have caused problems too, but last week, the Syrian government reportedly introduced guidelines that would permit Syrian refugees to renew an expired passport through Syrian consuls in their countries of refuge, even if they fled the country illegally or did not complete mandatory military service. This measure was supposedly put in place to placate the Syrian opposition, but I gleaned from discussions I had with refugees in Turkey that it is unlikely that many will take the government up on the offer. One man told me he had two babies but couldn’t register them because he defected from the army and has been recorded as dead since 2012. This man may be one of thousands of defectors who, on paper, at least, no longer exist. And while the conflict persists, he probably won’t ever feel safe enough to approach the Syrian consul to record his children’s births or request another passport.
As long as the Syrian government continues to ruthlessly target and persecute its citizens, many Syrians in neighboring countries will not feel safe interacting with the regime. How could they? Yet the gesture, if it doesn’t come with retaliation, might increase the number of Syrians who come forward. This is a good thing, because it could mean the difference between citizenship and statelessness for Syrian refugee children.
Statelessness is not a new phenomenon in Syria. Before the uprising, Syria was already home to two of the largest and most protractedly stateless populations in the world: an estimated 300,000 ethnic Kurds and 400,000 Palestinians. Shortly after the uprising began in January 2011, the Assad regime issued a series of orders that restored access to social services and employment to some ethnic Kurds, consistent with their Syrian counterparts. The regime then provided those Kurds with the opportunity to apply for citizenship and receive a passport. According to the government, since the decree, at least 37,000 ethnic Kurds have gained Syrian citizenship. Similar and broader measures should be put in place as part of any reconciliation process so Syria’s exiled children can pursue their rightful claim to citizenship.
Syrian citizens and existing stateless populations in Syria have the right to return to their country of origin. However, it is the promise of peace and stability rather than access to Syrian consuls abroad that will ultimately permit Syrian citizens to take up their passports and exercise their right to return.