BORN IN
EXILE

BORN IN EXILE

Birth registration is a right of all children under international law.31 In addition to proving a child’s legal identity, birth registration also provides proof of age, which is critical for ensuring the enjoyment of rights and child-specific protections.

Families are increasingly forced to flee Syria with babies who have not yet been registered, or are facing barriers to registering their children born in exile.

Unregistered refugee children can face increased risks of exposure to violence, abuse and exploitation. Birth registration can also help to prevent statelessness by documenting the child’s parentage and country of birth, both of which are required by states to grant nationality to a child at birth.

Identity crisis
UNHCR/J. Kohler

One of baby Ziad’s first expeditions outside his tent was to register with UNHCR. He still needs to register with the Jordanian authorities to get a birth certificate.

Scope of the problem

In Lebanon, an estimated 10,000 Syrian refugee newborns will be registered with UNHCR by the end of 2013. Additionally, a WFP/UNHCR/UNICEF vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon found that 40 per cent of registered refugee households included women who were lactating or pregnant. But levels of birth registration are low, with a recent UNHCR survey on birth registration revealing that 77 per cent of 781 refugee newborns did not have an official birth certificate. This problem was particularly prevalent in the Bekaa Valley and the north of Lebanon.

UNHCR staff in Jordan also confirmed that access to birth registration is a serious concern. In Za’atari camp, over 1,400 children born between the end of November 2012 and the end of July 2013 have not received birth certificates.

Birth certificates are now issued on a weekly basis by the Civil Registry in Mafraq, Jordan. From 1 August to 12 October 2013, 66 birth certificates were issued to babies born in Za’atari camp, a dramatic increase from the two birth certificates issued between January and July 2013.

The classification of Syrian personal identity documents by UNHCR staff in a new Jordanian reception centre, Rabaa Al-Sarhan, has made it possible to find and copy Syrian identity documents for families. This helps those seeking to register their newborns in Za’atari camp.

Learning to crawl
UNHCR/B. Sokol

A Syrian refugee baby crawls across the ground in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Barriers to registration

While the Governments of Jordan and Lebanon permit Syrian refugees to register children born in their countries, for numerous reasons many births are not registered. A major barrier in both countries is a lack of understanding of the importance of birth registration and how to go about it. When asked whether he will register his newborn, Radwan, a new father in Za’atari camp, held up his son’s birth notification document from the hospital, mistakenly proclaiming, “But this is a birth certificate!”

In Lebanon, some refugees are so overwhelmed by the complex birth registration process that they resort to risky practices to obtain a birth certificate. This includes returning to Syria in the late stages of pregnancy to give birth, or enlisting relatives in Syria to fraudulently register babies born in Lebanon as having been born in Syria.

Another significant barrier is that some refugees are unable to provide the documents required to register births, such as identity papers and marriage certificates. These requirements differ between Jordan and Lebanon, and even within both countries. In Lebanon, the Personal Status Directorate issued guidelines in May 2013 to address this, but the practice is not uniformly applied.

Uncertain fate
UNHCR/S. Rich

A young mother crosses the border from Syria and becomes a refugee. She carries her one-month-old son, Hamid. “Since he was born there has been non-stop bombing every day.”

Working on solutions

UNHCR and partners have been working with the authorities in both countries to ease the requirements for Syrian refugees to register births. Significant progress has been made. In Jordan, the Civil Status Department agreed that Syrian refugees can provide copies of their identification documents if they do not have the originals, though practice differs between governorates. In Lebanon, the Personal Status Directorate agreed in May 2013 to accept the family booklet as proof of parental identity and marriage.

UNHCR is also working with refugees to raise awareness about the significance of birth registration and the process. In Jordan, UNHCR works with Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) Legal Aid in urban areas, conducting field visits with refugee families and awareness sessions through community-based organizations.

In Lebanon, UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council offer refugees family counselling, group information sessions and outreach at registration centers, providing advice and distributing a leaflet on how to register births. Every month, UNHCR provides individual counselling to about 1,000 families with newborns, and together with its partners provides training for service providers and clinics on birth registration procedures.

Some refugees never had documents such as marriage certificates, as they did not register their marriages with the civil authorities in Syria. Others did not bring their original documents from Syria because they were destroyed or lost. A single mother in Mafraq, Jordan, told UNHCR that she was unable to register her child because her family booklet was burned when her home was bombed. Her husband is still in Syria, complicating the prospect of verifying her marriage in Jordan. Without such verification, it will not be possible to register her baby born in Jordan.

Failure to obtain a birth notification document, which is required to register a birth, is a problem in both Jordan and Lebanon. Some refugee women give birth at home without an authorized midwife. Others give birth in an emergency situation, or are refused notification from the hospital if they cannot pay the full cost of delivery.

A particular issue in Lebanon is the need to provide evidence of legal stay in order to register a birth. Some 12 per cent of Syrian refugees do not have valid stay documents because they entered through unofficial border crossings.

In both Jordan and Lebanon, births can only be registered administratively within one year of birth. After that, registration must be done through a judicial procedure.

At risk of statelessness

Rasha and Lina, twin girls born in Jordan, risk becoming stateless. They were born to a Jordanian mother who had moved to Syria and married a Syrian national. Although they qualify for Syrian nationality on the basis of having a Syrian father, there is currently no way to prove this. The girls’ father has been detained in Syria for refusing compulsory military service, and their mother—who fled to Jordan whilst pregnant—left Syria without any documents showing marriage registration. Consequently, the children have not been registered in Jordan.

The nationality laws of Jordan and Syria do not permit women to confer nationality on children in most circumstances.

In addition to being at risk of statelessness, these children are already facing other problems. Each was born with a hole in her heart, and one had both legs broken at birth. The related medical costs were borne out of pocket, as the babies were unregistered and therefore did not qualify for free assistance at public hospitals.

While medical assistance can be provided in such cases, unregistered children often have difficulties accessing health care and other basic rights, in addition to facing the risk of statelessness.

Roadblock to rights

Refugee children whose births are not registered in their country of asylum can have difficulty accessing national services such as healthcare and education. By documenting a child’s links with his or her country of origin or nationality, birth registration can also help to lay the foundation for a safe and voluntary return to Syria, if and when conditions allow.

Children who are unregistered might have difficulty crossing the border legally. Once in Syria, they are likely to then have a hard time proving their Syrian nationality, acquiring Syrian identity documents and accessing their rights. This could lead to statelessness and inhibit their ability to reintegrate into society and help to rebuild their country.

The problems facing unregistered children can intensify as they grow older and need to prove their age and legal identity in different areas of life—to enrol in school, for example, or to access social services and find work.

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.

~ Nelson Mandela ~

It's all of our responsibility to protect the children of Syria, to tell their stories, and raise awareness about their plight, until they can go home. Please consider donating (or supporting), connecting, and sharing.

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31 See Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force 2 Sept. 1990, Article 7; and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force 23 March 1976, Article 24(2). The right of all children to be registered at birth is also recognized by the Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam.

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Syrian Refugee Children

Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.

Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.