Lacking a nationality, some refugees from Syria face acute risks

News Stories, 20 December 2013

© UNHCR/A.Sen
A Syrian refugee shows UNHCR his "maktoumeen" card issued in Syria. This document, given to unregistered stateless Kurds, confers no rights or status.

AMMAN, Jordan, December 20 (UNHCR) Sayed lives in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with his three young children, having fled his home in Syria to escape the unrelenting violence. Like so many others displaced by the fighting, he is a refugee. But he and his family are also stateless, They are known as maktoumeen, or "unregistered," though Sayed reckons "unseen" would be a more accurate description.

The issue of statelessness individuals who have no officially recognized nationality is a problem for some Syrian refugees. A 2013 survey in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq found that some 10 per cent of Syrian Kurdish refugees are stateless, as many were forced to flee Syria before they could apply for nationality or were not eligible because they had never been registered by the Syrian authorities.

Tragically, the children of these stateless refugees will also inherit the condition of statelessness.

"In Syria, I could not register my marriage, even though my wife is Syrian and has her nationality document," said Jiwan, a 34-year-old stateless refugee also living in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Of course, my children are also maktoumeen," he added with a note of resignation.

As Syrian nationality law does not permit women to pass on nationality to their children, Jiwan's children have inherited his condition of statelessness. Jiwan and his wife are worried that it will prove difficult to register any children they may have while living as refugees. In order to register a new birth, all countries in the region require legal proof of marriage which the couple was never able to obtain.

A 2011 decree allows registered stateless Kurds, called ajanib (foreigners), to apply for Syrian nationality, but obstacles remain. Those deemed "unregistered" are still barred from applying for citizenship. Even those who are eligible to apply for nationality face certain challenges.

Azar, a 45-year-old man who had been designated among the ajanib, successfully applied for nationality in late 2011, shortly after the passage of the decree. "When I got my nationality, I registered my two oldest children, aged nine and seven. They are now listed in my document," he explained.

But he could not afford to do this for all of his children, because the fee was the equivalent of about US$70 for each child. "I was not able to register them when they were born, because I was still stateless back then," he noted. The result is that while two of Azar's children are now documented as Syrian nationals, the status of the other two remains uncertain.

Even when their parents have always possessed Syrian nationality, the risk of statelessness among refugee children is particularly acute. Families frequently flee the violence with newborn or very young children without having been able to register them in Syria.

Birth registration is the right of all children under international law. It can help prevent statelessness by documenting the child's parentage and country of birth the two factors used by states to grant nationality to a child at birth.

Birth registration also provides proof of age, which is critical for ensuring access to refugee protection aimed at children who, in the mass displacement from Syria, are at heightened risk of sexual exploitation and conscription into armed groups. By documenting a child's links with their country of origin or nationality, birth registration can also help to lay the foundation for a safe and voluntary return if and when conditions in Syria allow.

With the goal of ensuring the registration of every Syrian refugee child born abroad, UNHCR is launching initiatives in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to meet with refugee families, sensitize local authorities, and clarify registration procedures within the refugee population.

Host countries in the region are also working with UNHCR to develop a flexible approach to registering new refugee births in their territory.

By seeking to register every Syrian refugee child, the UN refugee agency is working to close a critical, if largely unseen, gap in the protection of these children and laying the foundation for their eventual return home.

A recent UNHCR report, "The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis," details the plight of Syrian refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon, including gaps in birth registration and the corresponding risk of statelessness.

By Amit Sen in Amman, Jordan

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At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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