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Defining test for young refugees: Prove you are Syrian

A generation of Syrian refugees – those born in exile and those who fled as minors – are at risk of statelessness, the UN warns. Only a minority hold valid passports and IDs.

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    Syrian refugee Umeyma with her newborn son Zakaria outside a hospital in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
    Dominique Soguel
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Syrian refugee Umeyma gingerly steps out of a hospital in Gaziantep cradling her newborn son, Zakaria, in a wool blanket. The joy of granting the gift of life to her seventh child eclipses the strain of giving birth in an alien land, among doctors and nurses she cannot understand.

“It was his lot to be born in Turkey, but he is Syrian,” declares the Aleppo native with pride.

But, armed with no more than a hospital birth certificate and a temporary identity card, Umeyma’s claim to his citizenship will be next to impossible to match on paper – unless she turns to document forgers thriving on both sides of the Syrian-Turkey border.

As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, an entire generation is at risk of statelessness as a result of the punitive policies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, strict nationality laws in host countries, and the Kafkaesque warzone bureaucracies that individuals must navigate to obtain documents.

“With the refugee situation growing more protracted and more desperate, almost two million Syrian refugees under 18 risk becoming a lost generation, and many of the over 100,000 refugee children born in exile could face the risk of statelessness,” the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned in a Feb. 26 Security Council briefing.

Turkey, which now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, is home to roughly 1.7 million Syrians, according to UN figures, most of them concentrated in camps and cities along the border. Only a tiny minority hold a valid Syrian passport or ID card, let alone an original copy of their marriage certificate or family book, legal documents needed to transfer nationality to their children.

“Imagine – roughly half the Syrian population is wanted by the regime,” says Bakri Kaake, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC). “The regime has deprived anyone from the opposition from their civic right to get a national ID or other legal documents.”

This new reality divides the Syrian refugee population into two groups: those who have the wherewithal to procure documents – legal or not – and those who don’t.

Out of the 300,000 Syrians living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, “a maximum of 10 percent have a legal passport or identity papers,” says Deputy Mayor Nursal Cakiroglu. He notes that his district, in accord with new regulations, has collected data on the Syrians and issued temporary IDs to those lacking documents.

At least 15,474 Syrian children have been born in Turkey since the start of the Syrian crisis, according to a researcher who declined to be named because these findings have yet to be published by his organization. The majority were born in Gaziantep and Istanbul, which logged 4,905 and 3,526 births respectively.

'100 percent by the book'

The choices facing the parents of these children in their quest to obtain documents range from the fraudulent to the extreme. Anxious fathers sit in Gaziantep cafes comparing their options, sharing tips and swapping contacts over bitter coffee.

One possibility is to register a child born in Turkey as if he or she were born in the regime-controlled zone of Aleppo.

The process, the fathers say, involves the services of a regime-sanctioned lawyer and costs $1,000. It is “100 percent by the book” and puts your child in the national database, helpful if the family plans a return to Syria.

But if all you need is the physical document, you can procure a family book – which lists all the members of a family – or birth certificate for just $100 without leaving Gaziantep.

Syrian nationality is conferred by the father, which leaves the children of single mothers particularly vulnerable. Even when both parents are present, some countries require an official marriage certificate to register a child’s birth. Couples married during the conflict rarely have such papers.

“We are seeing circumstances whereby marriages that take place in Syria are not properly documented (they are considered religious rather than civil marriages), and are therefore not recognized by the Turkish government,” says Courtney Phelps of the International Rescue Committee.

“This means that any child born from that marriage does not receive the proper birth registration denoting his/her family of origin, and can fall into a grey area where they are considered illegitimate or wards of the state,” she adds.

Out $1,000 with nothing to show for it

Every coffee-sipping, chain-smoking father has a different story – and a different solution.

Rabeah al-Ibrahim has twins: Amina and Ali. The pair was born in the Islamic State-controlled town of Al-Bab, where his in-laws are based, before coming to Turkey. The newborns were incorporated into his family book with the help of document forgers in Azaz, a Syrian border town where $20 buys a “real government stamp.”

Youness Shaho, a Kurd from Aleppo married to a Syrian-German national, is facing a different struggle. “As of now, my children have no documents, neither German, nor Syrian – just a birth certificate. I’ve spent $1,000 chasing documents and still have nothing to show for it," he complains. 

The German embassy requires the couple to present a Syrian family book that includes the names of the children, an original marriage certificate, and the parents’ birth certificates, all translated to German and certified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Syria. It's a tall order for a wanted man married under Muslim law.

“All I want is a document that secures the future of my child because I am Syrian and I could be killed any moment,” says Mr. Shaho, a political activist whose brother was killed in Aleppo.

Children in opposition-held areas

For the refugees, Turkey has introduced temporary regulations designed to allow vulnerable families to access services without documentation, but the process remains murky and isn't applied uniformly. 

Children in opposition-held areas of Syria face similar dilemmas, presenting their parents with a thorny calculus of where to deliver. The outlook is especially bleak for those born in the enclaves of extremist groups like Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the self-declared Islamic State (IS). 

Children born in the self-styled IS “caliphate,” which encompasses contiguous territories in Syria and Iraq, may well face the highest hurdles accessing nationality in future.

While the scale of the problem is hard to measure, partial figures paint an alarming picture. About 900 children are born a month in IS-held areas of Deir Ezzor, say medics. And none of them have access to documentation that would be recognized by Syrian or other authorities.

“A small number of women are going all the way to Mosul to deliver their babies there because there are better hospitals,” says one doctor. 

In Idlib Province, which is largely under the influence of Jabhat al-Nusra, only six clinics provide birthing facilities.

Partial tallies provided by doctors from 20 medical facilities in rebel areas suggest thousands of children are at risk across the country. And the danger of traveling from rebel to government areas mean few parents register their children.

“There are about 750 births per month in the liberated areas, not a single child gets registered,” says another doctor, Khaled, contacted via social media. “Usually families try to travel to regime areas at the moment of birth in order to get formal documentation for the child, unless the father is wanted.”

Opposition-issued documents

In a sparse office back in Gaziantep, Majed Khatib wages a losing battle against the refugees' documentation crisis.

He runs the legal office of the opposition SNC, issuing birth, civil status, marriage, divorce, and death certificates to those who meet the minimum requirements but are unable to obtain them back home. Yet he has few takers, since no government fully recognizes his office's paperwork. 

“We established this service to counter the spreading of fake documents,” Mr. Khatib says, flipping through massive black archives. Since its establishment nearly three years ago, the office has issued 168 family books, 173 marriage certificates, and 32 birth certificates, a small number suggesting that most refugees go elsewhere. 

Mr. Khatib says he follows the same protocols that would be applied in Syria and draws on witness testimony when supporting documentation is lacking. Most of his clients are Syrians who need the documents in order to apply for asylum in Europe or to the handful of scholarships open to them.

Not even Turkey, a major backer of the opposition, recognizes the SNC's paperwork. But the embassies of Austria, France Germany, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and the Arab Gulf countries have accepted them en lieu of documents issued by the government in Damascus, he says.

“Without documents, Syrians children lose their right to life: their right to education, healthcare, etc.,” he warns. “They are unknowns.”

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