Six years of war have left hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians without valid documentation, compromising their freedom of movement and access to basic services.
By Qusai Alazroni
ALEPPO, SYRIA [ ABN NEWS ] — Samira recalls the day at the end of 2012 when she and her husband Wael took their newborn son and fled their home in eastern Aleppo. Without a valid marriage certificate or ID, they had to dodge checkpoints as well as pockets of fighting, transforming the short journey to the west of the city into a long and dangerous trek.
“It was a difficult and complicated journey,” she remembered. “Trying to avoid the checkpoints and taking dangerous alternatives.” Despite reaching safety in western Aleppo, where the family has been displaced ever since, their lack of documentation threatens to have serious consequences for the couple and their young children.
Married shortly before the conflict erupted, Samira and Wael were unable to travel to his hometown some 50 kilometres away near Idleb to register their marriage due to heavy fighting along the route. “We hardly made it from east to west Aleppo. Going that far outside the city would have been a mission impossible,” Samira explained.
“It was a difficult and complicated journey.”
Without a marriage certificate, they were unable to register the births of their two children, Mohammed, 4, and Shaza, 2. “Without birth certificates, my children may not be able to have proper education or healthcare support”, Samira added.
As well as displacing 6.3 million people inside the country and driving a further 5 million into exile across the region, Syria’s six-year conflict has also left hundreds of thousands of citizens without valid civil documentation.
Syrian refugees who have been born outside Syria and have no birth certificate run the risk of joining the estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide, especially if their fathers are not able or willing to certify their parentage for various reasons. For others, including those displaced inside the country, such as Samira and Wael, the lack of documentation can also prevent family reunification and hinder movement.
“The lack of documentation also makes people more susceptible to harassment, extortion and exploitation,” explained Abdul Karim Ghoul, UNHCR’s Deputy Representative in Damascus.
With many unaware of the procedures involved in obtaining documentation, or unable to afford its recently increased costs, UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – is providing legal aid to those in need to help remedy the situation. It is also providing assistance for birth registration to reduce the risk of statelessness and ensure access to services.
In Samira’s case, legal aid support is provided through a lawyer to represent her and Wael before the courts and civil registration authorities in order to officially register their marriage and issue birth certificates for the children.
In one notable example at a UNHCR community centre in the coastal city of Tartous, the agency and its legal partners helped 5,000 displaced people from Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor to get new ID cards. The efforts of the lawyers working for local NGOs funded by UNHCR, coupled with understanding and cooperation on the part of the civil registry department, resulted in the IDs being issued without the need for the concerned individuals to make the dangerous journeys back to their home cities.
Khalaf, a displaced Syrian from Deir-ez-Zor, who lives with his family of five in a collective shelter in Tartous, explained the significance of getting a new national ID card, after he lost his previous ID when fleeing his home.
“Without my ID, I could not move freely or search for a job,” he said. “Now I can walk through checkpoints without any concerns about my safety.” Khalaf was also able to register the birth of his newborn daughter.
“Without my ID I could not move freely or search for a job.”
“It is a great success,” said Mr. Ghoul. “These people had either limited or no access to work and healthcare, and their movement was severely restricted. Now they can get a job or access healthcare, basic services and humanitarian assistance and can document their and their children’s civil status and citizenship.”
Through a network of currently ca. 120 local lawyers across Syria, UNHCR provided legal aid to 75,000 IDPs and affected host community members in 2016. In addition, 54,700 persons benefitted from awareness-raising sessions on different legal issues. These activities were carried out as part of the community-based protection response that UNHCR is implementing through a network of 74 community centres run by national NGOs, two legal clinics and more than 1,770 outreach volunteers, including specifically trained legal outreach Syrian volunteers.
The community centres provide a portfolio of integrated protection services, including legal aid and are supported by mobile teams providing legal aid in collective shelters and remote/hard-to-reach locations with a high number of IDPs.
Despite challenges in accessing displaced people in insecure or hard-to-reach areas, UNHCR aims to increase legal aid provision in 2017 by increasing its network of lawyers and outreach to underserved communities, and ensure that more Syrians receive the services and support they so desperately need.
For more information on the #IBELONG campaign to end statelessness, please visit: http://www.unhcr.org/ibelong-campaign-to-end-statelessness.html