There are millions of Syrians today who are living without a home. Almost 12 million women, men, and children are displaced either inside or outside of Syria. But within this population, there are tens of thousands for whom “home” is challenging even to define.
These are the babies born to those displaced Syrians. In Turkey, where an RI team studied the issue in March, more than 60,000 Syrian babies have been born in exile, and these numbers will continue to increase as the civil war rages on. None of the neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees, including Turkey, provide citizenship just because a child was born in its territory. Even if a birth is recorded, Syrian nationality law only permits Syrian fathers to transmit citizenship, with very few exceptions. Tens of thousands of Syrian fathers are dead, missing, or fighting in the civil war. In their absence, children born in exile since the war began, and even some of those born in Syria, may not be able to assert their Syrian citizenship if and when they are able to return home.
If they are not recognized as citizens by any country, these children will be stateless and may not have the right to attend school, access health care, work legally, or vote. And without proof of their age, they will be more vulnerable to trafficking, early marriage, and recruitment as child soldiers. Concrete steps taken now by host governments to legally record a child’s birth and collect specific information about their father’s name, location of birth, and family members could facilitate the ability of Syrian children to claim their citizenship and repatriate to Syria when stability there is restored.
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Syria just passed a grim anniversary, entering the fifth year of a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of over 220,000 people and a historic movement of people not seen since World War II. In the aftermath of that war, hundreds of thousands of people were rendered stateless due to the denationalization of Jewish people and others deemed not reflective of the German identity; and because in the aftermath of the war, some states disintegrated while new states emerged. Within a few years, the international community negotiated ways to extend international protection to many of those who had survived persecution through promulgation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and the 1954 and 1961 UN Statelessness Conventions. Despite these legal instruments, however, restoring or acquiring a new citizenship took decades for many who had lost their own during or after the war.
Syrians inside and outside the nation are on the front-end of a similar dilemma. No one knows how long the conflict will last, who will be in leadership, or what the borders of Syria will look like when stability is restored. In the meantime, the births of tens of thousands of Syrians are not being legally recorded. Although all children have the right to a nationality, to claim Syrian citizenship, these babies and children will need proof that they had a Syrian father. Some will have no record of their births at all, and others may acquire a birth certificate that does not list their father’s name because he is unknown, dead, or missing.
Across the region, the vast majority of Syrian newborns and children are not being registered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or host governments. According to the UNHCR, in Lebanon, almost 80 percent of Syrian refugees were not registered with the government or the UNHCR as of February 2015. In Jordan, 30 percent of refugees were not registered with either actor. The regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is reportedly targeting hospitals and healthcare workers in Syria, so more women are giving birth in homes and places of refuge where there is no official recording of the birth. Depending on how the civil war ends and what will be included in the process of reconciliation, hundreds of thousands of Syrian babies and children could be made stateless, not because they don’t have a rightful claim to nationality, but because they can’t prove that claim.
The Turkish government should ensure the registration and certification of Syrian births and match this commitment with sufficient human, financial, and technical resources.
Turkish government officers who deal with Syrian refugees, and particularly those who meet with Syrian parents including the foreigners’ police, Population Department, and the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM), 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.
The Turkish government, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Agency for Children (UNICEF), and other organizations with expertise in birth registration and certification, should develop and implement an education campaign on the importance of birth registration and birth certificates and offer clear guidelines on the process for securing both.
Materials should explain the rights of Syrian refugees to birth registration and a birth certificate through the Population Department, ensure that it is easily accessible and not financially burdensome, list the documents required and any alternatives that may suffice if primary documents are not available, and identify any necessary next steps.
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.
Turkish legal aid organizations should be provided with the resources needed to assist Syrian refugees attempting to secure birth registration and certificates for their children, whether the father is Turkish or Syrian.
Consistent with the stated commitment in the October 2014 Berlin Communique to prevent and eradicate statelessness, participating nations should support the government of Turkey financially and technically to provide the best possible birth registration and certification process for Syrian refugees with a focus on preventing statelessness.
Sarnata Reynolds and Daryl Grisgraber traveled to the Turkish cities of Ankara, Gaziantep, Istanbul, and Sanliurfa in March 2015 to assess the risk of statelessness for Syrian refugee children.