Chouf, Lebanon – Ibrahim Khattar and his fiance Daouk were forced to flee Aleppo for Lebanon in late 2012. Months later, the young couple wed and Daouk became pregnant; after the upheaval of the war and a long engagement, they were finally starting a fresh life.
But it was not to be. The couple had not realised their marriage, officiated by a local sheikh, was invalid in the eyes of the law without the right documents from Syria. Daouk gave birth in April to a girl, Taline, who will be one of the estimated 18,000 effectively stateless Syrian children in Lebanon.
A recent UNHCR survey suggests that more than 75 percent of Syrians born in Lebanon since 2011 have not been properly registered. The real figure is likely much higher. Some families simply are not aware of the importance of birth registration, but for many others, it is impossible without the right documents, which were either forgotten in the hurry to escape, destroyed in the fighting, or, like Ibrahim’s marriage certificate, never existed.
“In Syria we couldn’t even go to the ministries [to get the marriage documents before coming to Lebanon]; some of them had shut down. To go to the regions where some ministries were still functioning was too risky,” Ibrahim said, surrounded by his wife and extended family in their shared one-room apartment in the Chouf region.
“We thought that because it’s an Arab country, we would be able to register here, just as in Syria,” he added.
To get their marriage certificate would mean travelling back to Syria, or approaching the Syrian authorities in Lebanon – both options Ibrahim deems too dangerous. He earns $150 a month in Lebanon working in a bakery, a fraction of what he made as a legal clerk in Syria. He plans to travel to find a better life for his family and to return to Syria eventually, but does not know how he will cross checkpoints without any ID for Taline.
The complicated birth registration process in Lebanon is a low priority for refugees, involving time, money and often documents that many do not have. But without it, thousands of stateless children will be unable to access healthcare, education or other basic rights.
It's a very onerous procedure, and many refugees are not able to access their documents - they have been either lost or destroyed.
More importantly, these children have no official ties to their parents, making it virtually impossible for them to cross borders or pass through Lebanon’s many checkpoints. As stateless adults, they are likely to find themselves on the margins of society, potentially barred from jobs, property ownership or even marriage.
“It’s a very onerous procedure, and many refugees are not able to access their documents – they have been either lost or destroyed,” said Ana Pollard, associate statelessness officer at UNHCR.
The situation is likely to grow in scale, as the more than 1 million refugees in Lebanon settle into life in exile, three years into a conflict with no end in sight. Aid groups report that informal, and legally invalid, marriages often carried out by unlicensed sheikhs are on the rise among refugees unfamiliar with the legal processes in Lebanon.
Ibrahim’s sister, Roula, and her husband face the same situation with their two-month-old son, after they got married and she gave birth in Lebanon.
“If I’d known that the crisis was going to go on for so long, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten married and had children,” she said. Some refugees make the dangerous journey back to Syria just to give birth to ensure their children have Syrian nationality.
The UNHCR, along with UNICEF and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), are running a campaign to encourage refugees to properly register the births of their children, aware of the problems they may face in the future.
“The risk is that if it’s a very protracted stay, you have a large undocumented population, who might not be able to confirm their nationality in Syria,” Pollard said. Ultimately, what happens to these children “depends on how the Syrian authorities will respond in the future” to returning refugees.
Stateless children across the world face problems accessing healthcare, especially vaccinations – a particular concern with the recent polio outbreak in Syria and the broader region.
They also face hurdles in accessing education and other basic rights, said Brad Blitz, a professor of international politics and the deputy dean of the School of Law at Middlesex University, and the founder of the International Observatory on Statelessness. Undocumented children are at higher risk of child labour, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Lebanon’s refusal to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention makes the situation more difficult.
With no official “refugee” status, the country considers all those who enter through unofficial crossings, or who do not have residency papers, to be illegal. The NRC estimates more than half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have legal status, most because they cannot afford to renew the $200 annual residency fee.
I thought it would be a simple procedure. I never imagined it would be this difficult.
Without that, registering children is impossible. “One thing that makes this different from other situations is the problematic question of who is a refugee and what is a refugee [in Lebanon],” Blitz said. “In other parts of the world, even if you’re not formally a refugee, people might recognise your rights. In Lebanon, there is obviously a reluctance to do so because of the geopolitical and regional struggles.”
Even those with legal status are finding it difficult to register their children.
Mohammed Abdullah (not his real name), spent the last 10 months trying to register his now 11-month-old son; most of that time has been spent trying to prove his own identity. He and his wife were married in Syria, but left their IDs behind when they fled.
After seeking counsel, he was able to retrieve the documents via his brother from Syria, a costly and risky process. Now he has less than a month to register his son before the process goes to the courts, with legal fees of at least $200 that Mohammed, a casual day labourer, cannot afford.
“I thought it would be a simple procedure,” he said. “I never imagined it would be this difficult.”
UNHCR and the NRC encourage refugees to get as much documentation as possible, even if that means only gaining the birth notification issued by the hospital, in the hope that this will help refugees gain their identity later.
For some refugees, even that is not possible. Many are too reluctant to register with the UNHCR, fearing that identification to the authorities will put them in danger. This leaves them without the medical assistance to give birth in a hospital, and therefore no record of their child.
Mohammed, knowing what he knows now, said: “Even if I stayed here for 10 years, I wouldn’t have had children.”