Editor's Note: This blog by Sarnata Reynolds and Tori Duoos originally appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness.
Doctor Nazir’s pregnant wife arrived in Turkey with a one-year old and no documentation. They had fled the unbearable bombardment of their home town, Aleppo, while Dr. Nazir remained in Syria to work in an underground field hospital. Dr. Nazir had defected from the Syrian military in 2012, and was officially declared dead the same year. Because he no longer legally existed, Dr. Nazir was unable to register his 2013 marriage or the birth of his first child in Aleppo. When his second baby was born in Turkey in 2015, shortly after his wife’s arrival, she could not file an application for the baby’s birth certificate because Dr. Nazir remained in Syria and she had no legal proof of her marriage or her husband’s birth certificate.
For Syrian babies born outside the country, acquiring a birth certificate that records the Syrian father’s name is critical, because Syrian nationality law discriminates against women by only permitting children born outside the country to claim citizenship through their father. Yet, tens of thousands of Syrian births are occurring without the presence of a father because he is dead, missing or fighting. Without official proof of a Syrian father, exiled Syrian children are at a heightened risk of statelessness, which could make their ability to access education, health care and social services less likely, and could prove a barrier to returning and taking up Syrian citizenship, if and when the possibility arises.
OPPORTUNITIES TO DECREASE THE RISK OF STATELESSNESS AND CHALLENGES TO IMPLEMENTING THEM
Registering Babies for “Refugee” Benefits in Turkey
By registering in Turkey, Syrian refugees are recorded as “guests” and entitled to remain in the country temporarily as well as access education and health care. These are important opportunities that do not exist for Syrians in many other countries of refuge. Turkey has recorded more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, but the actual number of Syrians could be as high as 3 million. The gap between the actual and recorded number of Syrians is likely due to a combination of factors, including the sheer number of refugees and the capacity of the Turkish registration system to document them, but it is also due to confusion about where and how to register.
When Refugees International (RI) spoke with Turkish government officials in March of this year, we learned that to register babies as guests, Syrian parents must first obtain a “birth report” from a hospital (for births that don’t occur in hospitals because the mother is under age 18 or a second wife, this can be an insurmountable challenge). This administrative document records general information about the baby such as its name, date and location of birth, gender, and the parents’ names. The father may not be recorded on the birth report if he is not present and the mother does not have their marriage or his birth certificate. Yet, recording the father’s name and location of birth on the birth report, regardless of whether documents are available to substantiate it at the time, could prove key to demonstrating a right to Syrian citizenship.
Next, the parents must take the birth report to the “foreigners’police”, who record the newborn as a guest in Turkey, and issues temporary protection. Although the foreigners’ police can record a father’s name even without his presence or documents that prove a direct link to the child, RI was told that oftentimes the father’s name is not recorded because officers are not aware that they can base parentage on information provided by the mother alone. Complicating matters, Arabic names are written in the Turkish alphabet, which may cause confusion later if names are translated back into Arabic names and do not match the father’s name.
Although not as weighty as a birth certificate, refugee registration with the Turkish government would provide a newborn with some proof of parental lineage that could be used in the future to support a right to Syrian citizenship. Without even administrative records of birth, the burden of proving a right to citizenship of Syria will be daunting and put children born in exile, and those born in Syria without recorded births, at a heightened risk of statelessness.
Applying for an International or Syrian Birth Certificate
Refugees International learned that to apply for an international birth certificate in Turkey, parents must submit a newborn’s birth report to the local ”Population Department,” which is housed within the Ministry of Interior. The child may be issued an international birth certificate listing both parents if the father is present, or the mother has their marriage certificate and the father’s birth certificate. An application for an international birth certificate must occur within 30 days or a fee will be assessed, thereby making it more difficult for Syrian parents to document the birth of a child and legally link the child to a Syrian father. RI recommended that the late fee be waived as the risk of statelessness is of immeasurably greater concern than the administrative burden of processing a late request for an international birth certificate.
Refugees International did not speak to one Syrian who was aware of the opportunity to apply for an international birth certificate, and through meetings with members of the Turkish government, it was evident that many of them were also not aware of the process. Turkish government officers who deal with Syrian refugees, and particularly those who meet with Syrian parents, should be trained on the importance of the birth registration and certification processes and be able to explain them to Syrian parents either in Arabic or through an interpreter. In cases where a Syrian father is not present, as well as collecting information about the name, date, and location of birth of newborns, officers should also gather as much information as possible about the father’s background, including his name, the date and location of his birth, and his parents’ names.
Syrians may also pursue a birth certificate through the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. For so many people like Dr. Nazir, however, appearing before the Syrian consulate could put him and his family in danger, so this avenue is neither realistic nor safe for those Syrians viewed as hostile to the Assad regime, including human rights defenders, journalists, doctors and other medical professionals, and absconders from the Assad military.
Babies with Turkish Fathers and Syrian Mothers
Syrian women and girls are vulnerable to underage marriage, sexual exploitation, and polygamous marriages, and the experts RI spoke with in Turkey were concerned that all three situations were on the rise. Because polygamy and underage marriage are illegal in Turkey, these marriages are not recorded and therefore, although the father is Turkish, babies born in these types of situations may end up stateless because the birth takes place in a home and is not legally recorded. RI was told by the Turkish government that each member of an underage or polygamous marriage could be prosecuted if their arrangement was discovered at a hospital or government office, and to avoid this, many parents are choosing not to record the births of children from these marriages at all.
Safeguards in Turkish Law to Protect from Statelessness
To Turkey’s credit, Turkish nationality law includes provisions specifically put in place to avoid statelessness. Turkey is a signatory to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and in March 2015, and includes a safeguard in its nationality law for children born to a stateless parent. Additionally, a new ‘Law on Foreigners and International Protection,’ allows people determined to be stateless to access certain protections and to request permanent residency in Turkey.
Statelessness Concerns for Syrian Adults in Exile
Statelessness is also a concern for Syrian adults. Over the past four years of war, many Syrians have lost their identity documents when their homes were destroyed or as they fled the country. Indeed, not only will Dr. Nazir’s children find it challenging to prove they have a right to Syrian citizenship - Dr. Nazir himself will face a similar obstacle. “I don’t have an ID,” he revealed, “because my home was in a regime area and all my documents were destroyed.” He is one of likely thousands of former members of the Syrian military who have been recorded as dead after absconding. How Dr. Nazir and others like him will be able to acquire new documentation of his Syrian nationality, and whether he and his family will be allowed to return to Syria as citizens remain open questions. Many Syrians who have managed to keep identity documents find that they are expiring and can only be renewed at a Syrian consulate or in Syria itself. New procedures allow Syrian refugees to renew passports at the Syrian consulate in their country of refuge, supposedly without consequences and regardless of their military or migration status. Yet, for Syrian refugees, being identified by Syrian authorities could put them in danger. In recent developments, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has made a point to destroy Syrian passports and legal records, which could make it even more difficult for Syrians to return home and take up their citizenship.
Dr. Nazir’s situation illuminates the complexity of registering for status in Turkey as well as acquiring a birth certificate in the midst of a brutal war taking place in a country that does not permit women to transmit nationality to their children. The best way to address the risk of statelessness for Syria’s youth born abroad would be to amend Syria’s nationality law so that women and men could pass on citizenship equally. In the meantime, a more accessible registration and certification process for Syrian refugees in Turkey, coupled with the collection of more robust information about a newborn’s Syrian father, would go a long way toward preventing and reducing the risk of statelessness among Syria’s children.
In support of this goal, Turkish and international humanitarian actors who work with Syrian refugees should understand the long-term impact of not registering children, including the risk of statelessness, and seek out information about the experiences of Syrians attempting to register and secure birth certificates for their children. Challenges should be documented and shared with relevant Turkish officials, the UNHCR, and UNICEF. UN agencies should meet regularly with relevant Turkish officials to address challenges and inform Syrian refugees of changes or improvements to the registration and certification systems.
The Refugees International report ”Birth Registration in Turkey: Protecting the Future for Syrian Children” can be downloaded here.
*name has been changed to maintain confidentiality