ZAHLE, Lebanon: In a single-story concrete shelter on the outskirts of Zahle, a field officer with the Norwegian Refugee Council gives Mohammad and Heba instructions on how to legally register their 5-month-old baby. As he listens, Mohammad shakes his head at the lengthy process.
The NRC intervened a year ago to help Mohammad – who asked not to give his family name – to legally register his marriage to Heba. Thanks to this, the couple can now register the birth of their first child and prevent years of legal wrangling that could have left her stateless.
However, many Syrian couples left to navigate this bureaucracy alone are failing to complete even this first legal step. Not having official marriage certificates increases the risk that children will become stateless and complicates their return home or resettlement outside of Lebanon.
According to data collected by the NRC between 2015 and 2016, out of 1,702 refugees the organization spoke to who got married in Lebanon, only 206 obtained a marriage certificate from the mukhtar (local official) – the key step in ensuring legal registration. Fewer still followed the process to completion.
“As they receive a marriage contract by the sheikh at the time of the ceremony, many think their marriage is legally registered,” Tina Gewis, information counselor and legal assistant with the NRC, told The Daily Star. “It is very often only when they have children that the couple realizes the importance of the marriage certificate, because there is no way to register the child [without legal proof of marriage].”
When this happens, refugees find themselves having to complete both marriage and birth registration before the baby turns 1 – after which registering a birth becomes a lengthy and complicated judicial procedure. The cumulative financial and logistic burden of completing both marriage and birth registration is often a further deterrent for newlywed couples.
“The more steps it takes to register a marriage, the more the system is going to be inaccessible,” Tina Gewis, protection and advocacy adviser with the NRC, told The Daily Star.
Based on interviews the NGO did with refugees, the main challenge is understanding the system as it differs from that of Syria. One in four said cost was another factor. With poverty widespread in the Syrian refugee community, many are unable to prioritize marriage registration over basic needs like food. The lack of a valid residency also deters many. Without residency, refugees risk being arrested by Lebanese police and detained or fined. This makes them unwilling to visiting towns to find a mukhtar.
The third and final step for marriage registration requires submitting documents to the local registry office and the Foreigner’s Registry. Many men of Mohammad’s age have escaped conscription into the Syrian army and worry that submitting the information to finish registering the marriage will allow the Syrian government to get hold of their current information. As a consequence, the NRC estimates that that of the 1,702 interviewed refugees only 15 had completed the full procedure.
Both refugee families and Lebanon itself are bound to bear the result. Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR spokesperson, explained that “if the marriage is not registered ... it faces the risk of not being recognized later in a third country.”
Therefore the lack of a recognized marriage, could bar refugees from being resettled outside of Lebanon – something the government has been calling the international community to increase. Children born in Lebanon must be registered and get exit permission to leave the country – an impossible task without a registered marriage.
Similarly, couples may not be recognized as “family units” when assessed for resettlement or aid. While marriage certificate is only one measure used by the UNHCR, Abou Khaled said “[its] absence can make it more difficult to establish family unit.”
There is also the concern of recognition by the Syrian state on the refugees return if children and marriages are not legally registered.
Additionally, not registering marriages is also a missed opportunity to collect valuable data on the number of unregistered Syrian refugees in the country – especially since the UNHCR suspended refugee registration at the government’s request in 2015.
Based on the NRC’s field work, new strategies need to be put in place in order to enable Syrian refugees to exercise their right to marriage in Lebanon. Top of the list, according to the NGO, is providing clear information.
“The procedures are different from the ones in Syria, so this is really also a problem,” Gewis said.
As the Syrian civil war carries on and more refugees in Lebanon are reaching the age of marriage, new problems are also arising.
Alia, a mother of five, has two children without legal documents because they turned 15 while in Lebanon – the age at which a child cannot be covered under a parents’ ID. As Alia’s children grow older, she worries that not having IDs will bar a normal life and prevent them from getting married legally.
“Without [legal documents] they will not be able to register in college, or get married and start a family,” Alia told The Daily Star.
“They are so desperate they want to leave for Europe by boat. But I threatened them, I told them that if they do, they will no longer be my sons,” she added.