Initially, I was hesitant when invited to jointly lead a session last week at the American University of Beirut (AUB) on building a network on Citizenship and Statelessness in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). Although I know the region well, from my period as Executive Director of Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance, I had never travelled to Lebanon, a country whose complex and troubled past I had learnt about mostly from history books and media reports. Naturally, I was concerned that my relative lack of knowledge about the work of the several NGOs in Lebanon endeavouring to support stateless people would constrain my contribution.
On the morning of the conference I was led through the quite beautiful AUB campus towards an astonishing modernist concrete building, designed by the late, great, Zaha Hadid. Once inside, I was sharing a large conference table with over twenty representatives, comprised of NGOs, UNHCR, UNRWA and others, some of whom I knew and was delighted to meet again. Immediately made to feel at home, and very welcomed, I was quickly brought up to speed to a situation that I discovered is quite daunting.
Bordered by Syria to the north, Israel to the south, it is half the size of Wales, with a population of four million. Small, yes, but nevertheless a country highly influential in the Middle East, powered by a diaspora of approximately fourteen million.
I soon began to understand how complex the challenges are, exemplified by the fact that Lebanon is not a signatory to either the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness or the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, creating a fundamental legislative gap in the legal framework and thus denying nationality to thousands of people in Lebanon. Simply put, the country is lacking any binding legal commitment to prevent or eradicate statelessness.
UNHCR’s goals to support durable solutions for stateless persons is significantly compounded by its refugee challenges; a country that hosts the world’s largest number per capita, with estimates of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, together with 20,000 of other origins, in addition to the Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate. As with the Statelessness Convention, Lebanon is neither a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Whilst the participants at the meeting were concerned to focus on the work of those agencies supporting stateless people, the war in Syria, since 2011, has resulted in the displacement of countless Syrian refugees to Lebanon, large numbers of whom have lost their identity documents. The result is that thousands of refugees encamped in Lebanon, many of them women and children, have no documented citizenship, and may be at risk of statelessness.
Given the abovementioned difficulties, it was unsurprising that the meeting chose to focus on the problems relating to gender discrimination in nationality, civil registration and nationality rights for children.
With regards to gender discrimination, I learnt of the work of the Women’s Learning Partnership and their campaign for gender neutral citizenship/nationality laws in the MENA region. Another NGO, Legal Agenda, spoke about nationality rights for children, in particular the campaign for citizenship for children born in the state without automatic rights to nationality. Finally, Frontiers Rouwad and UNHCR discussed the difficulties surround civil registration and their on-going campaign to try and simplify the process.
Listening to the various presentation, it soon became apparent that the consequences of denial of citizenship, and the potential statelessness that was a consequence of it, now requires an urgent implementation of legal changes that needs to conform to international standards, in particular policies that ensure gender equality in citizenship law and fair and accessible civil registration for all.
Despite the admirable efforts of the participating agencies, the above-described legal context severely limits the work of civil society agencies working in the field, and so too of course, the work of UNHCR. Due to Lebanon’s lack of a statelessness determination and domestic legal framework for refugees, both UNHCR and UNRWA are prevented from fully fulfilling their mandates.
Most NGOS are consequently focused on encouraging authorities to simplify the civil registration process. This, they believe, can best be achieved by implementing educational and awareness programs. For example, there is a clear need to inform new mothers of the various steps to register their children. (There is a one-year time limit to do this.)
And yet, despite these problems, UNRWA, UNHCR, and civil society organisations have nevertheless made admirable progress in lobbying for change in the political and legislative spheres, in particular, their efforts to ensure that individuals are both aware of and able to exercise their rights. Correspondingly, participating agencies in the meeting have, to some extent, succeeded in engaging with the government to address issues relating to citizenship in Lebanon.
It seemed clear to everyone present that a model of NGO cooperation needs to be agreed on and put in place. Ideally, it was felt that a Beirut based internet platform could be a realistic starting point; an information hub on citizenship and statelessness that would, in time, develop into a more structured, shared platform. The all-round consensus was to explore this option, together with seeking some seed funding to take it to the next stage.
On my final day in Lebanon I travelled 90 km northeast of Beirut, into the Beqaa valley, a few miles from the Syrian border. Driving through numerous military checkpoints, I was instructed not to take photographs of any soldiers. However, as we speedily passed numerous refugee camps, I managed to take a few snaps. These fragile dwellings reminded me of the shanty towns in Cape Town that visitors would pass on their way from the airport into the city, during the dark days of Apartheid.