Nameless and stateless: Syria's generation of children stuck in legal limbo

Syria children
7 min read
15 September, 2022

With the recent frenzy on the repatriation of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) group-affiliated women and children to their native European countries, the issue of stateless children inside Syria is again solely focused on European women and children.

In July, France repatriated 51 women and children allegedly related to IS fighters from camps in northeast Syria. In June, Belgium flew home 22 women and children, and Tajikistan repatriated 104 children and 42 women. And similar repatriation efforts have been made thus far by Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands this year.

"Human rights have been stripped away simply because their mothers lack the right to pass nationality to their children"

However, Syria’s stateless issue is not exclusive to children of IS fighters, in fact, these cases are a minority inside Syria today.

Most stateless cases in Syria are children of Syrian mothers and fathers, many of whom had no connection to IS, yet over the years, media outlets have focused their attention on the angle of European mothers and children trapped in camps.

By doing this, the consequences of Syria’s discriminatory nationality laws towards women (which have predominately contributed to this stateless issue) have continued to be overlooked.

Syrian children have been deprived of basic necessities
Assad's regime has forced thousands of Syrian children to fend for themselves [Getty Images]

The indirect implications of discriminatory laws become ever more present when war or conflict exists, as seen with Syria’s nationality laws.

Syrian law, along with other countries in the region, does not allow women to pass their nationality to their children, causing nationality to only be passed through patriarchal lineage (jus sanguinis). 

Paternal jus sanguinis has existed since the French imperialist rule in Syria dating back to 1925 and has remained in place since the establishment of Syria’s current nationality laws in 1969.

Just prior to Syria’s conflict, Syrian women's civil society groups had made progress in having these laws amended, but were halted when the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011.

These laws limit women’s rights but have also led to an ever-growing stateless population in Syria. Accurate statistics on stateless people inside Syria are nearly impossible to gather due to the sensitive nature of the topic and insecurity within the country, but the Humans Without Rights Report shows how the decade-long conflict has exacerbated Syria’s stateless issue significantly.

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The Humans Without Rights report published by the Warsheh Team, which focuses on research and advocacy for stateless people within Syria, documents how sexist nationality laws have contributed to an ever-growing stateless issue within the country.

Rasha Altabshi, the main researcher for the report, found that stateless children are considered to be illegally living within their home country and not granted their basic rights to citizenship or official registration documents.

“This leads to a generation of stateless children deprived of their most basic human rights, including their rights to education, healthcare, travel, and employment. These human rights have been stripped away simply because their mothers lack the right to pass nationality to their children,” says Rasha.

Further, mothers of stateless children face difficulties in Syria and neighbouring countries when seeking humanitarian aid from United Nations organisations and civil societies due to their children lacking official registration documents.

"There is a huge internally displaced population (IDP) in northern Syria where mothers lack proof of who the father is due to him missing or being killed"

The report shares that most stateless cases recognised in mainstream media are children of foreign fighters that joined IS starting in 2014. Foreign fighters from European states, Tunisia, Australia and other countries married and/or had children with Syrian women.

Following the extremist group's defeat, foreign fighters either returned home or were killed in battle causing their children to become stateless and remain in Syria since other countries would not accept them.

The media coined these children as ‘Children of ISIS’, however, the Humans Without Rights report mentions that these children should rather be referred to as ‘Victims of ISIS’.

Many of these children have been left to live in dangerous and unstable conditions in Syria and Iraq. However, despite the media’s attention on stateless children of foreign fighters, in reality, this is a minority of stateless cases within Syria today, shares Zahra Albarazi.

A Syrian child is seen looking on as heavy rain causes mud to cover a refugee camp in Idlib, Syria [Getty Images]
A Syrian child looks on as heavy rain causes mud to cover a refugee camp in Idlib, Syria [Getty Images]

Zahra Albarazi is a human rights attorney based in Turkey that provided the legal research for the Humans Without Rights report.

“Palestinians and Kurds in Syria have historically been most affected by nationality laws prohibiting women from passing down their nationality," she tells The New Arab, 

Historically, statelessness was a continuous issue for Syria’s Kurdish population mostly located in the northeastern part of the country.

The unofficial recognition of Kurds by the Syrian regime led to them not being permitted to have passports or official marriage certificates.

However, since the Syrian conflict, there are now a plethora of dynamics leading to stateless cases that have expanded to other communities within Syria.

According to Zahra, such examples include first wives not wanting second wives’ marriages to be legally registered for inheritance reasons, leaving children of second wives to be stateless.

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Child marriages have significantly increased since the start of the conflict, largely due to economic hardships.

These marriages are technically illegal and therefore not officially registered, causing children from these marriages to most likely be stateless depending on the area and familial context.

“Currently, there is a huge internally displaced population (IDP) in northern Syria where mothers lack proof of who the father is due to him missing or being killed. This causes there to be a lack of proper documentation of marriages and birth certificates and for refugee mothers in neighbouring countries to be unable to prove the nationality of their child,” says Zahra.

Orphaned children, who take shelter in makeshift tents in Idlib, continue their lives in poverty and long for their parents [Getty Images]
Orphaned children, who take shelter in makeshift tents in Idlib, continue their lives in poverty and long for their parents [Getty Images]

The list goes on about different circumstances, but more disturbingly, the raping of Syrian women and girls throughout the conflict by regime forces and militiamen is believed to be the main factor for current stateless cases.

According to the report, women and girls have been unable to identify men who have raped them, causing their children to be stateless. 

And unfortunately, there is little that women can do. “Women are unable to go through the court systems and therefore may seek illegitimate mechanisms by registering the child under their maternal grandparents’ names or collecting witnesses of the marriage to establish proof of the father. But if they are unable to do this, then mothers of stateless children can do nothing,” says Zahra.

On the grand scale, Syria’s nationality laws need to be amended, but in the meantime, Zahra suggests that all children should be officially documented even without proof of the father.

“These changes need to be implemented now since these children are living illegally inside Syria. Making sure they have legal status is the first step to guaranteeing their rights.”

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With urgent stability and aid needed in Syria, it is easy to dismiss women’s issues by simply pushing them aside ‘for later.' But both Zahra and Rasha believe that there is no right time, place, or circumstance to demand legal change since the nationality laws have remained in place since Syria’s first constitution (1925).

Syria’s nationality laws should be on the political agenda as Assad tries to improve his international image and reopen diplomatic relations. The international community should pressure Assad and use leverage to change discriminatory laws against women and other minority groups.

Media outlets should contribute to this by not only reporting on European women and children connected to IS when discussing Syria’s stateless issue.

Rasha describes the need for this to be on the political agenda. “This discrimination against Syrian women is leading to generations of stateless children being exposed to various forms of abuse, child labour, trafficking, and terrorism,” says Rasha.

Neighbouring countries that share similar discriminatory nationality laws, such as Lebanon and Jordan, should also consider amendments to avoid a similar stateless issue in the future.

Lara Bellone d’Altavilla works in the humanitarian field and has published works across various platforms covering social justice issues in the Middle East. She is the founder and content writer for GRLبنت and co-founder of Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM).

Follow her on Twitter: @LaraBellone