Syrian refugee newborns are unregistered
Beirut - One of the biggest challenges posed by the Syrian war is that of tens of thousands of refugee children born in host countries not being registered with any government.
Without official papers establishing their identity and rights to Syrian nationality, the children could face a life of statelessness and deprivation of basic rights, including education, freedom of movement and the right to cross borders.
The Lebanese government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been campaigning to raise awareness among refugees of the importance of declaring their newborns to secure their legal rights. According to UNHCR, about 69,000 children have been born among the 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
However, the UNHCR can only keep track of births among registered refugees. It is not known how many have been born among the approximately 500,000 unregistered Syrians in the country.
Omar Ibrahim Rateb, 3, is one of those children. Born in a refugee settlement in northern Lebanon, he was denied a birth certificate.
Recalling the circumstances of Omar’s birth, his mother said: “First, we went to (the private) Al Minya Hospital but they asked for 1 million Lebanese pounds ($666). Then, we tried a public hospital where they asked for 400,000 pounds ($266). At the end, we settled for an unauthorised midwife from a nearby camp, although we knew she could not give a legal birth certificate.”
Eight-month-old Bashar al-Ali has a birth certificate but he is neither registered in any Lebanese civil registry for foreigners nor at the Syrian embassy. In addition to registration fees, movement is an issue for parents who cannot afford to renew their expired residence permits and fear arrest at army checkpoints.
“We can hardly secure food from casual daily work. How can we register our child when we have to worry about how to find money for eating?” said Ahmed, Bashar’s father.
The Lebanese government is aware of the problem and has initiated a campaign with UNHCR to encourage refugees to register children born on Lebanese territory.
“We have a special department for recording foreigners and the failure to do so befalls completely on the parents,” said Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
For the estimated 100,000 refugees in the border town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon, registering newborns is almost an impossible task.
“We have an average of 150 births per month. We issue birth certificates that the parents authenticate with the local mayor but unfortunately they cannot go further in the procedure of registering the newborn with the Lebanese civil authorities,” says Dr Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor at a field hospital set up in Arsal in 2014 to care for refugees.
In Egypt, the estimated 132,000 Syrian refugees have failed to register newborns at the Syrian embassy in Cairo for various reasons, including financial and political.
“Registration fee costs $100. This will increase to $600 if the passports of the parents are invalid. The problem is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees cannot afford to pay,” said Arkan Abul Kheir, a Syrian refugee in Egypt.
“The other thing is that most of the Syrians living here are wanted by Syrian security agencies. This means that, if they go to the embassy, they can be arrested and repatriated,” added Abul Kheir, whose wife gave birth to their third son in January.
“I only got a birth certificate from the hospital where my wife gave birth and an authentication of this certificate from the (Egyptian) Foreign Ministry. When he grows up, my son will not have either a passport or an identity card… The problem is that I cannot enlist him in school without a valid passport. I do not know what to do,” said Abul Kheir, a refugee in his 50s who is wanted by Syrian authorities.
Although the process of registering Syrian refugee newborns appears more organised in Jordan, government and UN officials say there’s a margin of at least 5% of Syrian babies who are unregistered. The reasons include lack of proper documentation or inability to commute to registration centres in urban areas from outlying villages across the country.
Jordan says it hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees counted in a recent census whose details are yet to be announced. Of the total, 635,324 are registered with UNHCR.
Under the process, backed by UNHCR, Jordan eased restrictions on Syrian baby registration and set up offices specifically designated for that purpose.