Statelessness among Syria’s displaced: Still unidentified

Zahra Albarazi, independent human rights lawyer & activist and Thomas McGee, PhD Researcher at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness
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A longer version of this blogpost was published in the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration in January 2020

In Syria, having no nationality is not a new phenomenon - the country already hosted one of the largest populations of stateless people prior to the start of the conflict in 2011. This includes presence of several large groups excluded from nationality, as well as gender discrimination embedded in Syria’s nationality law and practice, which has for decades prevented Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their children. At the same time, March 2020 will mark nine years since the start of the conflict and we are yet to see coherent policies developed and implemented to deal with statelessness in the context of Syrian asylum seekers. This is problematic because of the large-scale displacement that has taken place, but also because the protracted conflict has significantly shaped the issue of statelessness in two key ways: changing the nature of the existing statelessness problems and producing new instances of statelessness. 

‘My family have already taken so many risks.  Leaving our country and everything we know, trying to settle in various places before getting here, now trying to start anew.  Me and my wife are both stateless and we applied together for asylum.  When I ask the authorities why we have been given different statuses all I see are blank faces.  It’s like no-one really knows what to do with us as individuals so they try and slip us in with other groups that they actually understand.’
Yousef, stateless Palestinian living in Berlin

For the two main affected groups in Syria, Syrian Kurds and Palestinians, statelessness has been the result of specific historic events - the 1962 discriminatory census in Syria’s north-eastern Hassaka governorate and the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians respectively. Combined they made up one of the largest groups of stateless people living in a single country. Alongside this, gender-discriminatory provisions embedded into Syrian legislation and the present context of conflict and displacement are generating new cases of children at risk of statelessness. Women whose children are born with no legally established paternity continue to face problems in passing their Syrian nationality to the next generation. This is especially problematic in displacement or asylum contexts, since a Syrian woman cannot by law pass on her own nationality when the child is born outside the country.

The displacement of Syrians to Europe has resulted in some authorities attempting to understand the situation of stateless persons belonging to the key affected profiles amongst the larger Syrian refugee profile. However, identification of cases has not led to robust national or regional strategies on how to prevent new cases of statelessness and how to protect stateless individuals. Even before they left Syria or neighbouring countries, many were at risk of being excluded from resettlement procedures and from access to pathways through European embassies as proving their legal link to their children was not possible. Within research on experiences of stateless Syrians in Europe (see Stateless Journeys report and website), a number of stateless individuals in Greece spoke of their fear that acknowledging their statelessness to the authorities might complicate their situation and reduce chances of finally reaching refuge in northern Europe. Further in their journey, most states have complicated categories for ‘stateless persons’, and use other labels such as ‘persons of undetermined nationality’, ‘Palestinians’ and ‘Unknown nationality’, further complicating identification. This means that a stateless refugee will in most cases only be viewed as a refugee, with the stateless vulnerability ignored and not addressed.

States in Europe are often unready to deal with the issue of children who may be born stateless on their territory due to their mothers’ inability to transfer nationality. There also remains significant confusion across legal frameworks on the current situation of the Syrian Kurds. In 2011 the Syrian government decided to naturalise one sub-group of the stateless Kurds (the ajanib); this action excluded another category (the maktumeen). Even though it was well documented that the maktoumeen are excluded and there are substantial hurdles for the ajanib benefit from this decree, there is often the presumption that all Kurds had resolved their statelessness and were naturalized. Therefore, of those Syrian Kurds reaching Europe, there is a common narrative of complex legal limbo due to suspicion regarding their continuing statelessness.

It is often viewed that the displacement in Syria is over, which is far from the case. In 2020 already hundreds of thousands have been displaced from the Northeast of the country, and many elsewhere are looking to resettlement as the only durable solution. What is needed is more expertise in identifying those who are genuinely stateless or undocumented and at risk of statelessness and it is important that protection and outreach teams are familiar with the issue and that relevant regulations are developed. In Europe, there is progressive, albeit slow and incomplete, movement to identifying and preventing statelessness, as well as protecting the rights of stateless people – with developing jurisprudence and an increase in the introduction of statelessness determination procedures. This is however yet to translate into a better protection for many stateless individuals from Syria. It is imperative that staff working with Syrian refugees and ‘asylum seekers’ (be they government case workers, legal assistance providers or from asylum support charities) in a wide range of different countries are well acquainted with the particular profiles of those at risk of statelessness. Unlike stakeholders, the affected population themselves are usually very aware of their statelessness status, and therefore a role for many of the refugee focal points in Europe and the many refugee social networking groups is to encourage the community to inform authorities of their statelessness - or their worries about the risk of statelessness - once they are settled.  If this is done effectively, it could encourage states to take the vulnerability associated with statelessness more seriously, and in turn facilitate states to address their responsibilities towards stateless persons on their territory.

Photo credit: Street life in Aleppo, Syria; Thomas McGee

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