Syrian refugee children at risk of becoming stateless
BEIRUT // Tens of thousands of Syrian children born as refugees in Lebanon are in a legal limbo, not registered with any government, and facing a life of statelessness deprived of basic rights.
The problem is replicated in nations across the Middle East where more than 3.3 million Syrians have sought refuge from the civil war in their homeland.
For Syrian refugee women who give birth, acquiring the legal documentation with the local government is a chief concern. And yet an estimated 70 per cent of the 42,000 children born to Syrian parents in Lebanon since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011 remain off the books, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Without the basic documents that establish an individual’s identity, such as a birth certificate, even basic things like going to school, finding a job or getting married can be next to impossible.
“If you can’t prove your nationality, it means you can’t get legal documentation, can’t cross borders legally, can’t enjoy any other basic rights that citizens of a country are entitled too,” said Isabella Castrogiovanni, a senior child protection specialist with Unicef.
The estimate for Lebanon relates only to the 1.1 million refugees registered with the UN refugee agency. It is not known how many children have been born among the roughly 500,000 unregistered Syrians estimated to be in the country, but they are likely have an even lower rate of registration.
The daily hardships of life as a refugee keep many Syrian parents from registering their newborns: no money, no documents, little time off from work. The process is complicated, with multiple steps that require travel from one government office to another, money for fees and, most importantly, a slew of documents. Without the parents’ marriage license, for example, the birth of a child cannot be registered. But many Syrians had to flee their homeland on short notice and left legal papers behind, or their papers were destroyed along with their homes.
At a natal clinic in a run-down neighborhood in south Beirut on a recent December morning, about a dozen Syrian mothers with children in tow sat on green plastic chairs waiting for a checkup with the resident midwife. Most of the women said they were aware of the need to register their newborn, but only around half of them had.
Outside, one mother named Khawla from the city of Idlib in north-western Syria cradled her newborn son in her arms as her two-year-old son Mohammed, stomped around on the pavement.
“It took us eight months to register Mohammed. We’re thinking we may not register him,” she said, nodding at her baby boy, Yousef, asleep in her arms. “My husband works from 5 am to 10pm every day in a grocery store, so he doesn’t have time to go through the whole process. We’re waiting for a miracle to register Yousef.”
For another young mother, who gave her name as Zeinab, the barrier to registering was with the paperwork required by Lebanese authorities.
“I want to register my two youngest,” she said. “The problem is they asked for documents from Syria, but we can’t go back.”
Both women declined to give their last names out of fear of causing trouble with Lebanese authorities.
In Lebanon, the process begins when the child is born and new parents receive a birth notification from an authorised doctor or midwife. The parents must then take that, along with their own identification cards, to the local mayor to get a birth certificate for a small fee.
Then they have to register the birth certificate with a local government department handling family records. Finally, they must register it again at another office, the provincial personal status department. Each of those steps has its own fees.
The haphazard conditions of refugee life add complications. If the parents married as refugees in Lebanon without getting the proper papers, the process hits a dead end. If a woman gives birth without an authorised midwife or doctor, she cannot even get the birth notification that starts the process.
“We’re getting to the stage where awareness about it is more widespread, but the procedures are a bit difficult to understand ... and there are barriers that cause people problems,” said Jocelyn Knight, the protection coordinator for the International Rescue Committee’s office in Beirut.
“I think just because of the number of steps involved, it can be quite daunting for new parents and they’re not really sure what to do.”
The UN refugee agency and non-governmental organisations have been pushing to raise awareness among Syrian refugees across the Middle East of the need to register their children.
The situation is markedly better in Jordan than in Lebanon, for example. There, UNHCR says 70 per cent of Syrian babies have been registered.
UN officials say progress has been made in the past six months to raise awareness in Lebanon.
“If you think in terms of the hope for these children to go back to Syria one day, if and when conditions allow, not having any legal document will make them like ghosts going back to their country,” said Ms Castrogiovanni, the Unicef child protection specialist.
* Associated Press
Updated: December 20, 2014 04:00 AM