Stateless Syrians in Europe: Navigating the “Knowledge Gap”

Thomas McGee is a PhD researcher at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne
/ 5 mins read

Over the last two years, I have participated in the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI)’s and’s #StatelessJourneys project. This seeks to generate an evidence base on the relationship between statelessness and forced migration in Europe, while developing tools for advocacy, capacity-building, awareness-raising and community engagement to protect the rights of stateless refugees. This week the project published a new Country Position Paper on Syria, which provides information on the profiles of stateless individuals and those at risk of statelessness due to nationality or civil documentation problems in Syria.

Within the project, I have interviewed numerous stateless asylum seekers and refugees across Europe. One of the most striking things that I observed was the huge variety of experience, as stateless people from different origins and in different European countries struggle to navigate the complexities of Europe’s varied asylum and reception systems. At the same time, those systems often fail to comprehend the intricacies and lived realities of what being stateless means for the people directly affected.

Photo: Raman Ibrahim; Despite significant bureaucratic challenges in acquiring his temporary residency card in Damascus, this stateless (maktum) Kurd from Syria discovers it has little recognition outside his country of birth.
Raman Ibrahim; Despite significant bureaucratic challenges in acquiring his temporary residency card in Damascus, this stateless (maktum) Kurd from Syria discovers it has little recognition outside his country of birth. Photograph taken by Raman Ibrahim

In view of Syria being the country of origin for the largest number of asylum seekers in the EU every year since 2013, as well as having a large historic statelessness population, stateless Syrian asylum seekers and refugees made up a significant proportion of the stateless people we encountered in Europe. In the report From Syria to Europe, we have given particular focus to the experiences of two profiles of stateless people from Syria seeking protection in Europe: stateless Kurds and Palestinian Refugees. This research found that stateless refugees from Syria (like those from other parts of the world) often face additional challenges within European asylum and reception systems, including: mis-identification, discrimination, limited freedom of movement, exclusion from resettlement schemes and obstacles to family reunification.

Indeed, research has highlighted the lack of a standard policy and approach to the identification of stateless refugees across Europe. Only a handful of European states have a functioning Statelessness Determination Procedure to identify and grant protection to stateless people on their territory. Moreover, officials often lack the knowledge and capacity to identify cases of statelessness and tailor support accordingly. Interviews with stateless Syrians in Europe frequently highlighted confusion around their status, with many being assigned contradictory labels by different levels and institutions of government, sometimes leading to significant bureaucratic problems for the individuals concerned.

‘Here in the Netherlands, the Municipality employees asked me why I don’t have a passport. I explained my story and they just looked confused […]  I tried again to explain my story, and showed them my documents. After some months of repeating this all many times, eventually they registered me as “stateless.” The funny thing is that I came here after the government agreed for me to join my father who was already in the country. They knew already that he was stateless. I don’t understand why it was so confusing for them that I was too.’ (Lana, a stateless Kurd coming to Europe through Family Reunification)

The “Knowledge Gap” and Country of Origin Information

In certain European contexts, the lack of understanding about statelessness among government officials is compounded by the absence of references to statelessness within the most up-to-date Country of Origin Information (COI) on Syria. For example, the latest Syria Country Information and Guidance report by the UK Home Office (from August 2016) does not make a single mention of the issue of statelessness despite its continued significance. While the document provides background information on the key state and non-state armed groups in the country, as well as the humanitarian situation, freedom of movement and nature/level of violence, it makes no reference to the continued relevance of historic issues of statelessness. For example, it does not mention stateless populations in Syria, like Palestinians Refugees and ajanib and maktumeen Kurds, who have faced protection concerns for decades. Nor does it mention Syria’s gender discriminatory nationality laws, which heighten the risk of childhood statelessness among Syrians abroad in particular, as well as new groups of people who are at increased risk of statelessness in the Syrian refugee context.  Many of these issues were covered in reasonable detail in previous COI reports (see, for example, the 2013 report.

Similarly, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO)’s most recent 86-page COI report on Syria (from March 2018) - used by EU Members States to guide their asylum decision-making - makes no reference to statelessness at all. Despite 14 pages dedicated to Kurds, there is no mention of the continued impact of the 1962 census, which made 120,000 Kurds from north-eastern Syria stateless almost overnight (later increasing to some 300,000). Nor does EASO’s report deal with the fact that  the 2011 Naturalisation Decree provided nationality only to a section of the stateless Kurds (ajanib who were able to present to the authorities in person). Likewise, although the report refers to various Palestinian militias active in Syria, there is no reference made to the situation for Palestinian Refugees from Syria who may also be considered as stateless persons since 1948.

While recent COI material is likely intended to compliment and build on existing knowledge about Syria, the statelessness “knowledge gap” within European asylum systems as a result of these omissions has caused significant confusion and frustration for the stateless Syrians interviewed for our research. For example, stateless Kurds from Syria in the UK, Netherlands and Germany were all questioned by the authorities about why they had not been naturalised automatically under the 2011 Naturalisation Decree. In reality, the naturalisation provisions were not automatic and required people affected to present themselves to the authorities in Syria. Many, including  the maktumeen category of Kurds were excluded entirely from the provisions of the Decree. As a result, those most in need of international protection are sometimes finding their claims undermined by the failure of COI reports to reflect the continued reality of statelessness for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

It is vitally important that accurate and up-to-date information about statelessness affecting people from Syria is (re-)inserted into the COI material used to guide the work of asylum and reception staff in Europe (and elsewhere). The 2018 report on stateless Kurds from Syria produced by the Norwegian Country of Origin Information Centre, Landinfo, deserves particular praise (available in Norwegian) for its contribution to available COI material.

The Syria Country Position Paper released by the #StatelessJourneys project today builds on this further, providing an accessible source of information on the main profiles of people affected by statelessness in Syria, and how nationality problems may arise in the Syrian refugee context.

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