Lebanon: Seven-month-old Nour lives in a tarpaulin tent pitched on a muddy patch of earth in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The tent, one of a dozen in a small refugee camp, contains a metal stove, a prayer mat and worn rugs on the floor. A leather jacket and a plastic mirror hang from nails hammered into its wooden beams.
Swaddled in a faded pink blanket against the cold, Nour is the first of her Syrian parents’ three children to be born as a refugee. Her family fled their native Homs at the start of Syria’s civil war. Crammed two to a seat in a bus, her parents and two older siblings travelled 70 miles (112 km) into Lebanon, where Nour was born.
Now her mother and father, Asheqa and Trad, face a new challenge. They need to register Nour with a local government office in Lebanon by her first birthday in early September. A birth certificate is the crucial first step to securing Syrian citizenship. Without it, Nour could join a fast-growing generation of children who are stateless – lacking legal recognition as a citizen of any country.
But as Nour’s parents are learning, even something as simple as registering a baby’s birth is fraught with hurdles for a refugee in Lebanon.
The country has more refugees per head of the population than any country in the world, but it is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has not allowed the U.N. to set up formal camps for Syrians. Some politicians fret about the impact of mainly Sunni refugees from Syria on the country’s sectarian balance. Power in Lebanon is carefully divided between Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, Sunnis and other groups. Registering Syrian births could create a precedent for Syrians to settle in the country, they worry.
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Surveys by the United Nations refugee agency and the Norwegian Refugee Council suggest the number of children whose births remain unregistered in Lebanon could be as high as 50,000. Aid agencies see similar difficulties registering children in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, which host millions of Syrian refugees between them. That means the number of Syrian children facing statelessness is likely to be much higher.
Those thousands of potentially stateless children are one way the wars in Syria and Iraq are reshaping the Middle East and its people for good.
“If you look at the number of births that have happened … I think we can be talking about hundreds of thousands who are potentially not registered in the region as a whole,” said Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, a humanitarian group that works for displaced and stateless people.
The U.N. says stateless children risk missing out on basic rights such as education and healthcare, can face difficulties getting a job and are exposed to abuse and even trafficking.
To have Nour fully recognised as Syrian will involve a Kafkaesque process that requires trips to different government offices, negotiating checkpoints to get to Beirut, and approaching the Syrian embassy – something many refugees fleeing civil war are afraid to do.
Lebanon’s social affairs ministry, which handles the refugee issue, said the steps required were “clear and proportionate.”
Nour’s parents – they asked not to reveal their full names for fear of being targeted by Syria’s warring factions or arrested by Lebanese authorities – are afraid of embarking on the process. They have not even tried to get her birth registered, despite understanding what that might mean down the line.
“We’re scared for her future,” Asheqa, her mother, said. “We’re afraid that if we want to return to Syria, we won’t be able to take her in because she has no documents. Where’s the proof that it’s your child?”
Asheqa and Trad abandoned their house about three months after the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. Like many buildings in Homs – a centre of the uprising – their home was later flattened to rubble in bombardments. – Reuters