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Syria: Follow Through on Commitment to Grant Citizenship to Stateless Kurds

Policy recommendations
  • The government of Syria must grant citizenship to all individuals lacking effective nationality in accordance with Article 3 of the Syrian Nationality Act and international law. The government should become party to the 1954 Convention Relating to the status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Prevention of Statelessness as well.
  • A program of reparations and development for Kurds who lost property and status in 1962 should be created by the Syrian government.
  • The Syrian government must ensure every child born in Syria has the right to acquire a nationality and is not stateless. In addition, nationality should be permitted to pass from mother to child.
  • The Syrian government should recognize Kurdish culture and language within Syrian society.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees should work alongside the Syrian government to end statelessness in the country, including affected Kurds.
  • The UNHCR should broaden focus and operations to include stateless persons in addition to refugees as mandated, as well as provide relief consistent with its agency mandate to address stateless people.
  • The UNHCR should identify a staff team to work actively on ending statelessness in Syria and open UNHCR branch offices in regions of the country where statelessness is most severe.
  • The United States and concerned governments must establish a clear policy on Kurds in Syria, including resolution of the statelessness issue.
“It is like being buried alive,” one stateless man told Refugees International.

In 1962, when a census was conducted in the Hasakeh governorate under Decree No. 93, an estimated 120,000 people or about 20 percent of Syrian Kurds lost their citizenship, a number which has since more than doubled. Many persons who lost their nationality also later lost rights to their property, which was seized by the government and used for the re-settlement of displaced Arabs. The census was said to be part a political agenda to Arabize the northeast, an area rich in resources, and to identify illegal migrants. To retain citizenship, Kurds had to prove residence in Syria dating from 1945 or before. Implementation of this order went severely awry. Even Kurds with proof of residence lost nationality; others were compelled to pay large bribes to retain it. To this day many families have members who remained nationals and others who did not.

Most denationalized Kurds are labeled “Ajanib” (“foreigner” in Arabic) and issued identity cards by the Ministry of Interior, stating they are not Syrian nationals and are not entitled to travel. But a significant number of stateless Kurds in Syria do not possess even this identity document and are effectively invisible. They are called “Maktoumeen” (unregistered) and now number between 75,000 and 100,000.

The difficulties faced by stateless Kurds in Syria are many, despite Syria’s obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Individuals have irregular access to education, health care, livelihoods, travel, property ownership, judicial and political systems, and registration of businesses, marriages, and children. Statelessness affects every part of daily life. “Our condition in worse than that of a criminal,” a man from Qamishli said. “They can own a car or house. We can’t.” A young woman told RI, “When I was young, I was not sensitive to my status. Now I know it will affect my education, my job, and my marriage.”

The Syrian government recognizes the right of Kurdish children to a primary education. Stateless Kurds face difficulty
enrolling in secondary schools and universities, however, and even those who do find it impossible to obtain employment in many of their fields of expertise. Ajnabis are restricted from government jobs and the practice of law or medicine. They can practice other professions such as teaching or engineering in severely restricted ways. Many say they obtain an education in vain. When an Ajnabi engineering student in Aleppo was asked about plans after graduation, he shrugged and said, “I will probably work as a porter lifting boxes onto trucks.”

It is next to impossible for Maktoumeen to access higher education. Not only must the children go through considerable
administrative processes and delays in registering for primary education, but they must also obtain permission from state security to attend secondary school. Maktoumeen children do not receive a diploma from secondary school, preventing university enrollment. No stateless Kurd, even those at the top of their class, can access government scholarships for post-graduate education abroad.

With limited access to employment, a majority of stateless Kurds in Syria work in the informal sector or practice professions without a license or in an extremely limited capacity. A doctor sells tea on the street, a lawyer works as a barber, a man educated as a teacher transports flour sacks, and another left his family in the northeast region to work in a Damascus hotel restaurant. Due to the inability to find employment, one Syrian Kurdish man explained how he signed a statement that he was a Syrian Arab in order to retain rights associated with Syrian citizenship. Economic consequences of limited access to the labor market compel many Maktoumeen children to work picking cotton fields, selling cigarettes
or lottery tickets, cleaning windows, shining shoes, working as porters, and helping in mechanic shops.

Official marriage registration is a particularly painful point for many stateless Kurds. Ajnabi men who marry Ajanbia women, and male nationals who marry Ajnabia women, may register their marriages and pass their status onto their children. All other marriages, such as those between Ajnabi and Maktoumeen or between stateless men and women who are nationals, cannot be registered officially, even if a court decree is obtained recognizing the marriage. Men and women in such families are listed on their identity cards as “single”, which poses problems for the registration of children on family identity cards and even prevents married couples from sharing a room in a hotel. Many Kurdish families who have Syrian nationality refuse to allow their children to marry Ajanibi or Maktoumeen for these reasons.

Ownership and registration of businesses and property is also difficult. With no nationality, Kurds can not obtain property deeds or register cars or businesses. Some use the names of friends or relatives who are nationals to circumvent
these issues. Yet this arrangement forces them to rely upon the good faith of such persons and the problem still remains that they cannot pass on ownership of property to their children. Individuals who marry Syrian nationals often register property under the names of their spouses. Unlike the Maktoumeen, Ajanibi can obtain drivers licenses and cash checks; but neither are permitted to open bank accounts or obtain commercial drivers licenses.

Having few options to ensure basic survival, much less development, some stateless Kurds seek their opportunities abroad. With no travel documents, they take tremendous risks attempting to leave Syria, entrusting their safety to human smugglers and pay sums between SYP 150,000 and 600,000 (USD 3,000 to 12,000). They risk death, deportation, and imprisonment as consequences. While no official statistics are available, it is said that most families have had at least one member smuggled to another country.

“The world has shut its eyes to our problem,” declares astateless Kurd. Syria and the world community, led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), must take concrete steps to end statelessness. Earlier this year, Syrian President Bashar al Assad made an official proclamation that now is the time to redress this very old problem. He stated that governorates would be charged with helping a large number of stateless Kurds obtain their nationality. To date, there has been no concrete follow-up. The UNHCR has a mandate for stateless persons, but has failed to act on behalf of Kurds without nationality in Syria.

Refugees International Director of Research Maureen Lynch visited Syria in October, accompanied by Perveen Ali, a Cairo-based consultant.