“I asked the concerned parties to help me find my sisters and mother. The last time I saw them was near El-Hariri School in Wadi Khaled in 2015. I did not know anything about them for the past five years”. With these words Bashar Mesbah, 16, expresses his pain, after losing touch with his mother and sisters. Mesbah and his sisters are among thousands of stateless people in Lebanon, what makes searching for his lost family almost impossible.
Bashar’s father, Hussein, 60, lost his two wives and three daughters, and there is no way he can leave his camp in the Lebanese Bekaa to search for them because he does not have any identity papers.
Hussein is considered now a stateless person because his parents did not register him in Syria. He filed a complaint on the matter, but soon it was annulled with the death of his father. Hussein, who married three times under common law marriage contracts, came to Lebanon 20 years ago and had three daughters and a boy, all of them carried no identity papers.
Hussein's two wives left him for not having identity papers. His first wife took their three daughters and left him. He learned later that she was in Wadi Khaled in Akkar, northern Lebanon. However, he had not been able to find her nor his second wife since 2015.
Hussein told Rozana journalist: "I do not have an identity card or anything. I lost my family and I do not know how to find them. I had a driving license and I lost it. I need help so that I can know what happened to my daughters, legalize my status, and obtain identification papers."
The issue of unregistered births and marriages is not an exception in the Syrian camps in Lebanon. In fact, it is a common phenomenon that conceals many causes and grievances that continue from one generation to the next.
According to available figures, 70 percent of the Syrian children in Lebanon are not registered, despite a slight improvement during the recent years with the efforts of local and international organisations, and the amendment of some Lebanese laws in this regard.
Mohammed al-Amin, a sergeant in charge of about 50 camps in Lebanon, told the journalist that unregistered births exceeds the recorded numbers according to his observations, and so are the marriages, which fall under illegal contracts, not registered in the Lebanese state departments; thus, allowing the father to abandon his children and escape parenting duties.
Al-Amin stated: "We have seen many men leaving their pregnant wives because they could not bear the responsibility, especially with regard to the difficult conditions of the refugee community in Lebanon, which suffers from a severe economic and social crisis."
Amending the laws
Many Syrians arrived in Lebanon illegally since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. A large proportion of them were originally stateless or apatride. They entered the Lebanese territories and had children, whom they could not register because they themselves were stateless or had common law marriages, which take place in a customary way with the presence of a sheikh and witnesses, without registering the matrimony in state departments.
On the other hand, many Syrians have lost their identity papers during the war, and it is difficult for them to obtain new ones due to their oppositionist stances against to the regime, or because they participated in the war against it, or fled military conscription; adding to that the lack of awareness, insufficient legal knowledge, and the absence of financial means to settle the matter.
On 8 February, 2018, the Lebanese Council of Ministers approved Resolution 93, which stipulates the registration of any Syrian child born in Lebanon, even if his/her age exceeds one year, in the Departments for Foreigners in the governorates as of 01/01/2011.
The law provided also sending the births’ registration lists to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, which then informs the competent Syrian authorities, based on the charter submitted by the Minister of State for Displaced Affairs (which was later cancelled), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities.
However, these measures have solved only part of the problem. The official of the Legal Support Unit at the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), lawyer Muhammad Araji, explained that “the story begins from the moment of the baby is delivered, which often takes place in the camps by doulas (untrained midwife). A large part of the refugee community is accustomed using the doula’s help, which was never a problem in Syria. However, the doulas in Lebanon are not certified and therefore the child is born without his birth date and time being documented, which means that it is impossible for the parents to obtain a birth certificate from the mukhtar (village chief), keeping in mind that doctors and legal midwives will not recognize the birth or accept to document it due to many caveats in this regard, including children trafficking."
Araji continued: “In personal status departments, birth certificates that do not include the signature of a doctor or a professional midwife are automatically denied, and these cases are still common despite the awareness campaigns held by local and foreign organisations. Those children live in a very difficult situation, no one can help them in Lebanon or even in Syria if they are able to return. They might need DNA tests later to prove their sonship, which are expensive and complicated.
Lawyer Araji appealed to refugee women “to give birth in hospitals or with the help of professional midwives so that the child can obtain a birth certificate, knowing that all expenses are covered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the problem stems from the prevailing culture and lack of awareness. People are not familiar with the law and sometimes those who have a problem in their residency permits “hesitate to go to hospitals for fear of legal accountability."
He pointed out that "a birth certificate do not cost much, but its registration vital and necessary, because it can affect a person’s entire life."
Araji added: "There are many marriages that are not registered immediately. Parents remember to register their marriages years after, when they bring babies to the world; so they are referred to court, where the marriage is registered with a retroactive effect in the presence of witnesses. Then the children are registered too. But the problem is when one of the children does not have a birth certificate. "
The lawyer mentioned many cases where the father does not have a family register or official documents, for example, so the mother registers the child using the name of her sister or the uncle, which leads to another problem.
Registering births in Syria
Syrian lawyer Rahada Abdush explained that "the Syrian law requires the signature of a legal midwife or doctor to complete the birth registration procedures. However, if another woman or an unregistered midwife is involved in the birth, the Syrian law allows the mukhtar to register the child in the presence of the father, who is required to bring the family register and two witnesses,” noting that "if the identity of the untrained midwife is uncovered then she shall be penalized."
Abdush to the journalist that "many rural societies prefer asking doulas to diver the babies at home, for reasons related to religious fanaticism and preferring that another woman assists the delivery rather than resorting to a male doctor or a hospital, in addition to the fact that the service in public hospitals is often unsatisfactory and private clinics are expensive. Therefore, it is easier and cheaper to use the services of a traditional midwife."
A large number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have continued to resort to doulas as in rural Syrian communities. They therefore seek the help of Umm Muhammad and Umm Abbas during the hours of childbirth, which leads to denying the baby a birth certificate, which could have been possible in Syria, as the lawyer already explained.
Abdush pointed out that stateless persons in Syria are often the offspring of parents who had a common law marriage, noting that the number of apatrides increased dramatically during the years of war. Thus, many stateless Syrians who arrived in Lebanon to escape war and bloodshed, make stateless families under the cover of unregistered costmary marriages. This has led to generations of marginalized children with unknown futures, deprived of education, job opportunities and identity.
Syrian refugee Hadiya Dhaya al-Omar, 45, was extremely emotional when she recounted her suffering. She is a widow and mother of two divorced daughters. One of her daughters was divorced be her husband once she told him that she was pregnant, after accusing her of adultery.
Hadiya’s daughter gave birth to her child at home with the help of a doula, which prevented her from registering the child or obtaining a birth certificate. The baby will not be different from many other children who do not have identity papers, a nationality or a name.
The sergeant in charge of the camp where the three women lived and worked (in agriculture) let them go when Hadiya got sick and her second daughter was no longer able to work in the land. Thus, the family and the baby were left homeless and without work.
"I roam the streets now to beg for money to buy diapers and milk for my grandson, who was abandoned by his father and has no birth certificate. We all live in a deplorable condition, and my daughters and I are sick," said Hadiya.
Hediya and her family have been living in Lebanon for four years now, and her daughter's marriage contract was customary, which means that she could do nothing. Her grandson will remain without any document that proves his existence, especially since his father has disappeared, abdicating all his responsibilities.
He took her children and disappeared …
Rahaf could not protect her children, nor keep them with her. After having a common law marriage in Syria, she arrived with her husband and children in Lebanon, where she gave birth to other children who were also unregistered.
Recently her husband divorced her and took the five children to Syria, and there he decided to marry off his eldest daughter, who is a minor (15 years old). The mother could not do anything because she did not have a marriage contract or a birth certificate for any of her children.
Rahaf is still living in one of the refugee camps waiting for help or rescue, while trying to reach out to a relative in Syria to try to talk some sense into her husband not to marry off the child, or at least allow her to see her children... But her efforts were futile until the date of conducting this journalistic investigation.
What are the thousands of stateless Syrian children doing in Lebanon? We asked this question to those in charge of refugee camps in more than one Lebanese region, especially since stateless children cannot be enrolled in schools, have no identity papers, and they cannot even leave the camp. The answer was that this category of children work in agriculture with their families and earn 1,000 Lebanese pounds per hour. They work six hours a day, which means that they earn 6,000 pounds a day, which is less than a dollar with the current exchange rate!
Ahmed, who is a camp sergeant, said: "They have no other solution, neither their families. It is not possible to think about enrolling them in school. They often work in agriculture,” which means that those children are paying the price of crimes or mistakes they did not commit. They bear the burden of common law marriages, cruel displacement and unobtained identification documents. Then they are employed in violation of human rights law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) enacted in 1989, and the Lebanese law that prohibits child labour and exploitation.
The journalist called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to inquire about this problem. In this context, Lisa Abu Khaled, a UNHCR media specialist, noted that significant progress has been made specifically in the last three years regarding two important steps in the birth registration process.
How can Lebanon handle the file of 1 million of stateless Syrians, especially if the current situation continues? More than 80,000 stateless Syrians live currently in Lebanon (regardless of asylum), which is a preliminary number. However, there are no recent studies on the issue, so the number could have doubled by now. Thus, the problem of stateless Syrians will become more complex after a few years, and those persons will face a real crisis of integration into society.
Without mentioning that the return routes to Syria are not safe or accessible to everybody, just as the Syrian state has currently imposed a $100fee on every Syrian entering its territory, so how can the families afford this amount?
On the other hand, the economic crisis in the devastated Syrian regions, as well as the fact that many have lost everything in Syria and there is no place to return to plights the fate of a large number of children in the Syrian camps, who do not have legal papers in Lebanon and therefore cannot be enrolled in schools, work, or even leave the camp for fear of being arrested in checkpoints.
Those persons are trapped out of Syria due to the ongoing war and the subsequent economic challenges. They secure a living once in potato fields and once in tree groves, hiding sometimes from the war, cannons and checkpoints. Life passes by paying no attention to the little fingers burning by the fire of misery instead of drawing a sun on a piece of paper.