BEIRUT: After leaving the familiarity of home with little more than the clothes on their backs, some refugees end up facing a more subtle crisis in their host country– one that will affect their daily life until it is resolved.
Statelessness – a legal term describing people without a nationality – prevents people from gaining access to even basic rights and services.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has a stateless division, there are 450 refugees of Syrian origin in Lebanon who are considered stateless.
Of these, the majority are children whose births have not been registered. This is followed by Kurds without citizenship and a few cases of Syrians who fled their war-stricken without any documentation.
UNHCR serves all refugees regardless of their residency status.
But to access state services such as education and to prevent problems when returning to Syria, refugees –especially newborns – must be registered.
In recognition of this, UNHCR has set up a mobile legal counseling unit that goes to rural areas of Lebanon to raise awareness among refugees about the importance of birth registration.
“If parents aren’t in the country legally – either they entered illegally or they overstayed their visa – then they are afraid to approach the authorities. They put off registering [themselves], and then they face questions,” says Joelle Eid, public information associate at UNHCR.
She said this could lead to further complications if they had a child:
“It can be problematic if they wait too late. If they stay in Lebanon [without registering their child’s birth] for more than a year, then they will need to go to court.”
Article 15 of the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a nationality.” Yet today, according to the UNHCR, around 12 million people across the world are stateless.
So far, around 6,500 Syrian babies born in Lebanon have been registered with the UNHCR, a number projected to increase to 10,000 by the end of the year.
The longer the conflict in Syria rages on, the more refugees are likely to overstay their visas and lose their legal status as residents in Lebanon, putting newborns at an increased risk of statelessness.
With border security measures tightened and rules more strictly enforced, gone are the days when refugees could make the short trip to the Syrian border and spend an hour renewing their visa.
For those without legal status, the fear that they or their children could get arrested at any moment dooms them to a self-imposed house arrest.
Rami, a Kurdish refugee from northeast Syria who arrived in Lebanon around a year ago, spends most of his days along with his family in their one-bedroom apartment south of Beirut, not daring to leave because no one is registered with the authorities.
He has always been stateless – even though a Syrian presidential decree two months into the uprising in April 2011 granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds.
None of his seven children are enrolled in school because they don’t have a valid form of identification that is recognized by the government.
“Of course, if it were possible our kids would attend school,” Rami says. “It’s important for their future.”
His wife is pregnant, and they’re now thinking about their child-to-be, who will also not qualify for registration and who will be stateless for the foreseeable future.
His experience is in contrast to that of other refugee Syrian nationals, whose children have a chance to enjoy the basic rights of statehood if the required paperwork is submitted.
Registering a child’s birth in a foreign country can be a cumbersome process. For refugees who are trying to adjust to their new surroundings and secure food, shelter, work and education, official paperwork can be one of the last things on their mind.
In some cases, parents are simply unaware of the importance of registering their newborn or their marriage – a certificate of which is required for birth registration. Others don’t realize that a hospital birth record or sheikh-administered marriage license is not enough to be legal in Lebanon.
That’s where non-governmental organization awareness initiatives come in, with aid workers trying to make sure refugees know the required steps to register their children, giving workshops and distributing literature with vital information.
A warning on a UNHCR leaflet reads: “Without a birth certificate your child may have difficulties obtaining Syrian ID and may therefore not be able to cross the border to Syria legally.”
To avoid such a fate, the U.N. agency urges refugees to go take the following steps:
First, the parents need a birth notification from their hospital or midwife. If the father is absent, then the baby can be registered under the mother’s name.
Second, they need to bring this and their own ID cards to their local mukhtar.
Third, and most difficult, is to register at the nearest personal status department – a requirement for all foreigners. There, parents are required to show proof of their legal stay in Lebanon, a status that costs $200 per year per refugee to renew.
This is a high cost for a large family, but could lead to detention if not paid. If they cannot afford this, they are advised to avoid the third step, with the first two steps a good way for them to have their foot in the system.
This process seems bureaucratic – and it is. But it is much more straightforward than what it was up until a year ago, when the Lebanese state required foreigners to register with their passport, marriage certificate and civil extract, a booklet obtained from their country’s Foreign Ministry.
Now, they only need their family booklet – similar to the civil extract but less formal – and some mukhtar fees, which range up to LL30,000 and are waived in some special cases.
“There has been a lot of movement here in acknowledging Syrians here and helping them,” says Dalia Aranki, information, counseling and legal assistance program manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon. Aranki regularly travels throughout the country to raise awareness among refugee parents of the importance of registering their children’s birth.
There has also been a growing acknowledgement of the difficulties facing Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Ann Dismorr, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency – the largest aid agency in the region assisting Palestinian refugees – says there are a number of Palestinians who are now coming forward despite never having been in contact with the aid agency before.
Although she praises Lebanon for hosting so many refugees, she says she worries about the new stricter enforcement of border measures which appear to be limiting Palestinian entry into the country. She says she fears this could lead to an increase in the use of unofficial border crossings – and therefore a decrease in registration.
Rana, a Syrian refugee who arrived from the Damascus suburb of Douma around a year ago, gave birth in Lebanon shortly after arrival. She says she delayed registering her child’s birth for six months because she had to not only take care of her newborn but also her sick husband.
With the help of a lawyer appointed by the Norwegian Refugee Council, she was able to go through the entire registration process. Now she’s worried about her own status: Her residency permit, which she can’t afford to renew, expires in just a few days.