Helping refugee practitioners working on the Syria crisis to understand statelessness

Laura van Waas, Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
/ 6 mins read

“A generation of Syrian children who don’t count”, “Refugee crisis creates ‘stateless generation’ of children in limbo”, “A right to exist: the stateless Syrian children” – these were some of the headlines through which the media has called attention to a problem that is looming on the margins of the Syria crisis. The warning that some of Syria’s refugees may face nationality problems was prompted by factors such as Syria’s gender discriminatory citizenship law, the complex and sometimes impenetrable birth registration systems in the countries which host the largest numbers of refugees and the general problems of loss or destruction of personal documents due to conflict and displacement.

While most refugees from Syria are Syrian nationals and are not at risk of statelessness, some indeed face a real risk of statelessness and a small sub-set of the refugee population was already stateless prior to the conflict. Against this background, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) embarked on a joint project to deliver and disseminate a greater depth of knowledge about both the risk of new cases of statelessness arising among Syrian refugees and their children, and the particular vulnerabilities of stateless refugees from Syria.

The findings from the project have now been published in the report “Understanding Statelessness in the Syria Refugee Context” available to download online and as a practical online toolkit, designed to help organisations engaged in the refugee response to better understand statelessness

The project sought to answer questions such as:

  • Why is statelessness a problem among the displaced population from Syria?
  • What factors are most complicating access to Syrian nationality for some of the displaced?
  • Which children are most at risk of becoming stateless?
  • What is the situation of refugees from Syria who were already stateless, prior to the conflict, and remain so in exile?
  • How is the regional refugee response addressing these questions?
  • What more could be done to mitigate the impact of statelessness on the refugees from Syria and protect the right of refugee children to Syrian nationality?

With funding from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the NWO-WOTRO programme, research was conducted from April to September 2016. Field research was conducted in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, while the situation in Turkey and Egypt was assessed through key informant’s interviews and analysis of existing material. The process culminated in a regional expert roundtable that brought together stakeholders with expertise from working directly with the refugee population in the target countries and others with relevant doctrinal knowledge and international experience. The outcome of the research is captured in the report Understanding Statelessness in the Syria Refugee Context. This report includes information that is relevant for the humanitarian community operating in the region and beyond – as well as other stakeholders – about the various population risk profiles, drivers of the problem and good practices to address them.

The report discusses six profiles among the refugee population from Syria that can be considered at heightened risk of becoming stateless:

  1. Children whose birth in the host State is not registered by the statutory deadline;
  2. Children born within female-headed households;
  3. Children born within child marriages;
  4. Undocumented refugees;
  5. Refugees not registered with UNHCR;
  6. “Maktoum” refugees (those who were never registered in the Syrian civil system).

Two particular factors render these groups potentially vulnerable to statelessness: gender discrimination in Syria’s nationality law and lack of documentation of identity and nationality. The report also offers a more general stocktaking of the challenges faced by refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria when trying to access civil registration, in particular to register a birth or a marriage (with marriage registration crucial, in fact, for birth registration).

Importantly, the report also draws attention to the fact that those displaced from Syria are also a sub-set of stateless refugees: people who were already stateless in Syria and have fled the conflict to neighbouring countries. The main profiles of stateless refugees are stateless Kurds (Ajanib – those registered as ‘foreigners’ in Syria and Maktoum – those completely unregistered in Syria) and Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS). There are also a small number of isolated cases of stateless individuals who failed to acquire Syrian nationality due to gender discriminatory laws or lost nationality at some point because of political activism. Being a stateless refugee from Syria can generate additional protection challenges. Stateless persons from Syria often do not have proof of identity or they hold different documents from refugees who are Syrian nationals, which may not be recognised in the host country. This can render them unable to access civil registration and other required identity documents. Many stateless refugees have also crossed the borders irregularly which can compromise their legal stay in the country. Some cases have also been reported in which stateless refugees experienced difficulties registering as refugees with the relevant body. Other protection problems include restricted freedom of movement, increased fear and uncertainty and heightened pressure to return to Syria. In the longer term, stateless persons may face problems when accessing durable solutions available to the Syrian refugee population. A more fundamental problem is the difficulty of identifying stateless refugees and the fact that even when identified they may not be registered as stateless by humanitarian organisations. This makes it hard to assess their situation or provide targeted support and contributes to the invisibility of this group.

These research fed directly into the development of a practical Toolkit which is offered online at It has been designed with a view to helping civil society organisations engaged in the refugee response to better understand the intersections between their work and statelessness, and to share good practices, innovations and practical steps that they can take to ensure the effective and inclusive protection of stateless persons within humanitarian assistance programmes and contribute to the longer-term prevention and reduction of statelessness. The Toolkit is relevant both to practitioners working in the region and to those working with Syrian refugees around the world. An Arabic language version will be made available soon.

Among the tools offered are advocacy talking points, ideas and good practice examples to inform awareness raising efforts, case studies to explore the challenges refugees face and brainstorm solutions. There are also dedicated sections on Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, offering more detailed information on these countries. The Toolkit also provides a Resource Library, which contains a selection of project videos and downloads, as well as links to related reading material online. There are two dedicated training videos, which offer a Q&A on some of the core issues with international and regional experts from civil society, academia and the UN. You can hear directly about the challenges and solutions from Professor Helene Lambert of Westminster University, Kerry Neal of UNICEF, Haval Abdoulhamed of Qandil in Iraq, and many others.

If you are interested to hear more about the research findings or ask questions about the toolkit, join the webinar with the project’s lead researcher, Zahra Albarazi, on Monday 12 December from 3.00 – 4.30pm CET. Register for the webinar by sending an email to

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