Advocacy talking points
In addition to a more general lack of awareness, a major challenge in addressing statelessness in the Syria refugee context is that the different stakeholders involved may not fully understand the issue or the importance of taking action. Indeed, there are often misconceptions about statelessness and what measures are needed, for instance, to protect the right of every child to a nationality. This can create confusion and obstruct the implementation of an appropriate response. When discussing statelessness with different actors – local officials, service providers, community leaders, relief workers, etc – it can therefore be useful to keep in mind certain key messages through which to advocate for a better understanding of statelessness and greater willingness to act.
The following overview of advocacy talking points is designed to help inform conversations about mitigating the risks of statelessness for Syrian refugees and their families and protecting stateless refugees from Syria. Note that these are general messages only, suitable for any audience and aimed at clarifying misconceptions as well as demonstrating the importance of paying attention to statelessness issues. It may be helpful to develop and coordinate more detailed advocacy talking points for a specific country context. For those engaged in advocacy for law or policy reform, further and distinct messages would be needed.
Most refugees from Syria are Syrian nationals and are not at risk of statelessness
There can often be misunderstanding about the extent to which statelessness is a problem for refugees from Syria. While, for instance, some media reports from the region have warned of an entire stateless generation born to Syrian refugee parents in exile, in fact most refugees from Syria – and their children – are Syrian nationals and are not at risk of statelessness. The following points can help to clarify this:
- To be a refugee is not the same as being stateless. A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted, for instance on the basis of race, religion or political opinion. He or she often holds a nationality, but is not safe in that country. However, since statelessness can be both a cause and consequence of displacement, some refugees are also stateless. Stateless refugees are those who have been forcibly displaced and no state considers them a national under the operation of their law. Only a relatively small segment of the refugee population from Syria is also stateless (see further below).
- Undocumented refugee children born to Syrian fathers are not stateless at birth. They are Syrian nationals, acquiring nationality automatically under the Syrian nationality law. Birth registration remains critical, however, to documenting their nationality as well as protecting key child rights.
- Some refugees from Syria are “at risk of statelessness”. This is not the same as concluding that a person is stateless - it is a term used to describe situations in which people are vulnerable to being left without a nationality. For instance, a refugee child who is born in exile and whose birth has not been registered may be at risk of statelessness because of the difficulties this can create for proving his or her entitlement to nationality. This term can help in talking about where preventative action is needed to protect people at risk of statelessness from actually being left stateless – for instance by promoting access to birth registration.
Preventing statelessness will help to ensure a better future for Syrian refugees
While most refugees from Syria are Syrian nationals, some may be at risk of statelessness due to the circumstances of their displacement. Some children born in exile to refugee parents are also at risk of statelessness. Wherever possible, it is important to take steps to mitigate the risk of statelessness for Syrian refugees and their families by helping them to maintain a documented link to Syria. This will help to ensure a better future for Syrian refugees, including because:
- Preventing nationality disputes and avoiding statelessness can be a key tool in resolving refugee situations. Ensuring that refugees maintain their Syrian nationality will help to enable successful voluntary repatriation and reintegration when the circumstances allow for this in the future – paving the way for a durable solution. For children born in exile, establishing their connection to Syria will help to ensure they can return with their family.
- The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right. Statelessness can have a deeply detrimental impact on a person’s life, which is why human rights law protects the right to a nationality. States have a duty to do what they can to avoid statelessness, including in a forced displacement context.
- It is not in a state’s interest to allow statelessness to arise on its territory. Given that statelessness can pose an obstacle to the achievement of durable solutions, including voluntary return, it is in the interest of countries hosting refugees from Syria to help to avoid statelessness among this population. Taking steps to prevent statelessness now can be simpler than finding solutions to cases of statelessness further down the line, when the problem might have become entrenched.
Documents matter, particularly in a situation of displacement. A person’s ability to establish his or her identity, family connections and nationality can be of great importance both while he or she is a refugee and in the context of durable solutions. The registration of vital events – births, marriages, deaths – which take place in exile is also critical. Access to civil registration systems and other frameworks in the host country which can help refugees to document their identity and legal status is key, but will not always be straightforward – for instance because a refugee does not have the documents usually required of a person in order to register a birth. It is important to acknowledge that:
- Not all refugees from Syria have documentation of their identity. Refugees may not have brought the documents that they possessed with them as they fled or these may have been destroyed prior to or during their displacement. Some may not have been able to obtain documents in Syria because of the conflict interrupting access to procedures.
- Not all refugees from Syria possess the same documents. In Syria, there were and are a variety of documents given to individuals depending on their legal status. It is important to understand the different documents that refugees may possess, including by recognizing that stateless refugees from Syria will not have had access to the documents which were issued by Syria to its nationals. Some refugees will only have been able to access documents issued by non-state actors inside Syria.
- There are ways to help refugees access civil registration when they do not have (certain) documents. Several good practice precedents have been developed by countries hosting displaced populations to facilitate access to civil registration, such as accepting certificates from churches and mosques. Within the region, there are also good practice examples of host authorities accepting copies of documents or accepting witness testimony in lieu of documentation.
Birth registration is a right of every child
The right of every child to be registered, immediately after birth, is protected under international law, for example Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 7 of The Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam. Countries are obliged to register the birth of any child who is born on their territory, regardless of the legal status of the parents. As set out above, documents matter, and in the prevention of statelessness among children, birth registration plays a critical role. However, the connection between birth registration and nationality is often poorly understood. It is important to know that:
- Granting access to birth registration and issuing a birth certificate to a child DOES NOT EQUAL conferring nationality. Birth registration records the place of birth and the parents details, which are relevant factors in determining which nationality a child will acquire. However, whether a child is entitled to nationality based on birth in the country or descent from a parent who is a national is determined by each state’s own nationality law. Registering a birth and issuing a birth certificate to a baby does not mean that he or she will become a citizen of that state. It often does precisely the opposite – confirm that the child is a citizen of another State.
- Syrian nationality is conferred by descent, so registering the birth of a child or refugee parents helps to establish their Syrian nationality. Under Syrian nationality law, a child of a Syrian father automatically acquires Syrian nationality at birth. By registering a child’s birth and recording the details of the father, host countries can help to ensure that children of Syrian men are able to establish their Syrian nationality and to protect them from statelessness.
- Refugees may be unfamiliar with the birth registration requirements or procedures. Birth registration systems differ from country to country, even where there are cultural or linguistic similarities between countries. Refugees are unlikely to be aware of the birth registration systems of host states, and therefore extra effort need to be taken to ensure that they are receiving correct and timely information – especially where deadlines exist.
Some refugees from Syria are stateless and may need tailored support
Most refugees from Syria are Syrian nationals, but not all. Some do not hold any nationality at all: they are stateless refugees. This population included stateless Kurds (two categories, Ajanib Kurds and Maktoum Kurds), Palestinians (PRS) and various isolated profiles. Not all stakeholders are aware that there are stateless persons from Syria among those displaced, so a refugee’s statelessness may not be identified, recorded or factored into their treatment. This may lead to problems because:
- Stateless refugees can have specific needs or vulnerabilities. Stateless refugees face heightened protection risks, which include inability to access civil registration, restricted movement and pressure to return to Syria. For example, without documentation of identity, or with documents specifically issued in Syria only to stateless persons, stateless refugees may be denied access to civil registration procedures in the host state. Stateless refugees may therefore need tailored assistance.
- Statelessness can be an important factor in the context of durable solutions for refugees. Statelessness may be a factor which complicates access to durable solutions for refugees from Syria, including limiting access to resettlement programmes. Identifying statelessness as a potential hindrance to durable solutions will help to ensure that a refugee is offered suitable counselling and help.