Syrian Newborn Refugees and the Dilemma of Statelessness
History repeats itself. Again, the Western Hemisphere, particularly Europe, is facing a refugee crisis. These days around 65 million people, even more than after World War II, are fleeing their homes, seeking a new life (“Figures at a glance”). Some within their own country, but also a considerable amount abroad, are following a dangerous path to the sweet (but mostly untrue) promises of the West. Due to the cruel civil war in Syria, millions are fleeing their country, heading for a new home. Right now, countries in Europe and the Middle East are hosting the greatest proportion of Syrian refugees and children (McPhillips). The relocations means unspeakable exertions for the refugees. However, many people are unaware of the fact that not only the refugees who fled their countries are affected, but a whole new generation of newborn children: The dilemma of statelessness, which Syrian newborn refugees in camps face, is an underestimated topical subject. Once refugees and their children arrive in their host countries, they are sent to camps, where they have to wait until their faith is decided: Will they get asylum? Where will they be sent to live? Will they be sent back ‘home’?
This process can last months. Some women who have been pregnant when they left their country will give birth to children in refugee camps. What it means for newborns, to be born on foreign soil in these camps is the main interest of this article. After providing a short historical background, including Hannah Arendt’s comments on statelessness and refugees, we will elaborate on the current situation of newborns and children in refugee camps. This will be followed by a brief assessment of the options available for Westerners to effectively engage.
Hannah Arendt, who focused on migration, refugees and statelessness between the pre- and post-WWII-era, claims that refugees, “once they had left their homeland they became homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless” (267). She rightfully argues that refugees will always be stripped of some essential elements of human rights. Especially their newborns are facing enormous problems, even though they know nothing about it now. In her article in the Time magazine, Aryn Baker (Nov 2016) calls them: “children of no nation”, thus recognizing their status as stateless. This means, refugees are “living outside normal legal protection and need an additional guarantee of their elementary rights from an outside body” (Arendt, 275). Currently, around 10 million people are subject to the status of statelessness, according to the UN Refugee Agency (“Figures at a glance”). To acquire a nationality is difficult for the parents, which will be explained later. Hannah Arendt states that “the core of statelessness, [...] is identical with the refugee question” (279), and thereby connects these two phenomena as inseparable. The current trend is comparable to the situation 70 years ago, when every nation passed laws, which provided them with the possibility of getting rid of every stateless person (278). Nowadays, if the government of a nation classifies the homeland of refugees as safe, they can be deported back right away. Arendt explains the status of stateless people, stating that “since they are no longer allowed to partake in the human artifice, they begin to belong to the human race in much the same way as animals belong to a specific animal species” (302). What this means for Syrian
babies born in European refugee camps is quite shameful for civilized and industrialized countries.
What is it like to be a child of no nation? How do the conditions of the newborns differ in various countries? How do different countries and organisations respond to the crisis of statelessness? Let’s look at concrete examples.
Several groups of the Syrian population are affected by the threat of becoming stateless, and new-born children are the most vulnerable of them. Not all babies born in exile become stateless, in fact the majority of them will be recognized as Syrian nationals, but not all. This is due to the fact that under Syrian law nationality is passed on via paternal jus sanguinis, meaning by decent, but only through the male line. Consequently, a child will acquire the Syrian nationality only if the connection to a Syrian father can be proven. Under normal circumstance the state has provided some alternative means to award nationality to children, trying to “safeguard [them] against statelessness at birth” (Albarazi and van Waas 17). These measures however only apply to children born in Syria: those born in exile are therefore fundamentally disadvantaged by this legal situation. Several circumstances can lead to the threat of statelessness (17).
According to the UNHCR “one-fourth of Syrian refugee households” is female led, putting their children in particular danger (“In Search of Solutions”). But even if the father in question is present as well, the needed documentation may not be. To register a child’s birth in the respective host country, official documentation proving the child’s heritage, for example a marriage licence, is needed. Obviously not all refugees have managed to bring these documents with them when they fled their homes. For some the situation is so dire that they take the risk of returning to Syria, with their new-born children in tow, hoping to receive the needed documentation there (Albarazi and van Waas 51).
This is of course a central Human Rights issue. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that everyone “has the right to a nationality” (UN General Assembly, Human). And even for the case that this right is denied, in 1954 the UN adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, trying to contribute to some kind of certainty (UN General Assembly, Stateless). Children specifically are supposed to be offered additional protection. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child states in article 7 that children have “the right to acquire a nationality” and that the state is responsible for “the implementation of these right ... in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless” (UN General Assembly, Child). This means that all countries, Syria and the respective host countries, are charged with the responsibility to offer alternatives to those who under the current circumstances are excluded from receiving a nationality at birth.
But how do different countries deal with these guidelines? The country which bears the brunt of flow of refugees due to its geographical proximity is Greece. Sadly, the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the EU stated that its asylum system manifests dramatic deficiencies such as lack of receptions centers and insufficient remedy (Papademetriou). It is all the more alarming that more than 1,000 Syrian refugees who have
given birth last year in this country fear for the future rights of their babies. If the conditions for the parents are already unsatisfying in Greece the question arises: What will happen to their newborn children? At the beginning, the newborns are stateless and their future is insecure: both parents and children suffer from uncertainty, suspense and fear. In most camps, families are confronted with dire conditions. The Oreokastro camp for example consists of a warehouse with 250 army tents in which 250 children reside with their families. Neither is there a playground nor a formal school - only a tent where volunteers teach provisory classes. However, the facilities are not the only problem: Families with newborn children have to deal with a serious culture clash: In Syria, traditionally, baby girls get their ears pierced with gold studs at the age of three days. However, it is unlikely that Greeks will pierce the ears of a baby who is so young (“Finding Home”). The most elementary problem is the registration process of the newborns which requires numerable steps that not all parents are aware of. Since all the relevant documents are written in Greek the families are confronted with a communication problem. Typically, the parents of the newborns get a temporary birth certificate at the hospital. They need to submit this document at the local police office to certify the name of the child and to make a joint statement. Both parents need to declare the child, which poses a problem to single travelling mothers, since the Syrian law dictates that only the father can pass citizenship onto their children (Saunier). Therefore, the newborn children of single travelling mothers run the risk of ending up stateless.
Another significant example is provided by Turkey. In November 2016, this country had the highest number of registered Syrian refugees (2,764,500) (“Syrian Refugees”). Here, the parents need to bring the birth report to the foreigners’ police, who record the newborn as a guest in Turkey, which supplies the baby with temporary protection. The foreigners’ police record the father’s name without his presence based on the mother’s information, but often they are not aware of this possibility. However, again, without the father’s name, the child cannot claim the right to Syrian citizenship. Refugee registration with the Turkish government is essential since it constitutes a proof of parental lineage and therefore provides the newborn with the right to Syrian citizenship. Without records of birth, it is almost impossible to prove a right to citizenship of Syria. Another cultural problem is polygamy and underage marriage: As both types are illegal in Turkey, these marriages are deliberately not recorded by the couple. Therefore, even if the father is Turkish and the mother of Syrian descent, their babies may end up stateless, because the parents are not willing to record the birth of their babies as they fear prosecution. Hence, the birth takes place secretly and is not recorded. Good news in Turkey are however that Turkish nationality law contains provisions to avoid statelessness, such as the Law on Foreigners and International Protection which allows stateless people to request several protections and permanent residency in Turkey (Reynolds and Duoos).
In both countries the risk of ending up stateless is still too high. As mentioned above, one major problem that all countries are confronted with is Syria’s nationality law which declares that nationality is only passed through the child’s father. If the father is not present or cannot be named, the status of statelessness arises. To better deal with the dilemma of stateless people, this law should be reconsidered. However, Syria is not the only country that needs to take action and
emancipate. Countries which hosts refugees, too, need to ameliorate the living and legal conditions. Statelessness means rightlessness – therefore, everything should be done to avoid this status.
What, then, is to be done for those young Syrians born into statelessness? As awareness of the precarious situations of Syrian youth (particularly of Syrian newborns) has grown, so has the desire within Western nations to intervene. Mainstream outlets such as the magazine Time have run full series analyzing and narrativizing their experiences (“Finding Home”). This sympathy for young refugees was brought to a head with the publishing of photographs depicting Alan Kurdi, a 3-year old Syrian boy, whose body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea (Tharoor). As his family was denied entry into Canada, he drowned without a state willing to accept responsibility for him.
Given the problems raised by racial thinking and its effects on “the refugee question”, careful thought is needed to ensure that the sympathies of the West are well-directed. Aid can provide real benefit to young Syrian refugees, but many forms of intervention are also liable to morph our practice and perception of human rights. For example, in the weeks after the images of Kurdi spread, adoption agencies saw a noted rise in requests for Western couples to adopt from Syria (Haynie). They were rebuffed by the U.S. Embassy, as well as the agencies themselves, who contended that such adoptions were neither legally permissible nor logistically feasible. In particular, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service noted that “almost every Syrian child who has been separated from parents or become unaccompanied is either quickly reunited with family or taken in by relatives”, thus making them ineligible even under generous pretenses like the U.S. Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program. Beyond practical matters, the trend towards this option may also reflect the degree to which Western perspectives may see the refugee community as incapable of or unlikely to care for its members.
As opposed to outright adoption, a number of non-governmental organizations have advertised “orphan sponsorship” as a means of providing directly for the wellbeing of young refugees. Donors are paired with a Syrian child, towards whom their monthly contributions are spent. In this way, organizations like Islamic Relief and Nuday Syria allow anxious observers to play a role in the growth and development of a child who otherwise may have fallen through the social safety net or become institutionalized. Some of the campaigns like that of Helping Hand for Relief and Development have presented themselves as opportunities for pious Muslims to fulfil their zakat obligation and strengthen their global community of faith. Even orphan sponsorship, however, has come under criticism. The ChildSafe Movement, a group aiming to prevent the abuse and neglect of children, along with UNICEF and USAID have maintained that programs like orphan sponsorship fail to solve the crux of the problem: helping to build strong families and communities so as not to create orphanhood (“Don’t Create”). Moreover, there are serious concerns that publicizing the names and faces of vulnerable young refugees, combined with matching them to foreign benefactors, provides fertile ground for exploitation.
Instead of focusing on direct support to young refugees, several alternatives have emerged. First, leading organizations have advocated for family-based aid—empowering
families of Syrian refugees (both immediate and extended) so that they can support their children in the uncertain transition (“Don’t Create”). The Karam Foundation, for example, has piloted a program whereby donors can make cash transfers towards a refugee family, who are then able to bus their children to school or cover expenses (“Sponsor A Syrian”). The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund has started the Syrian Children Relief Project, which is aimed at medical and humanitarian relief for young refugees (“The Syrian Children”). Specifically focusing on the welfare of newborns growing up in the refugee camps, Carry the Future has invested in baby beds and toddler carriers so that mothers are better equipped (Khan). These broader-based strategies and “smart aid” interventions are aimed at slowly rebuilding the community resources that were lost in the conflict (“Smart Aid”).
Outside of adoption, these approaches do very little to secure the political rights of newborn refugees, only their economic, social, and cultural rights. As outlined earlier, different newborns will face differing situations depending on their country of residence, the availability of documentation, and various cultural factors. The trouble is that none of those factors are directly amenable to influence from individual outsiders (in a way that economic rights are so amenable), which leaves a concerned Western observer at a loss for actions. Those born on Turkish, Lebanese, and Greek soil and remaining there must eventually be recognized in some form or another. As a result of concerns like these, several European states joined forces with Kuwait, the United Nations, and civil society to host Supporting Syria and the Region, a conference whose goals included to provide “opportunities for refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries” and to “respect humanitarian law” (“About”). Though it is far from clear whether it has had any effect on the leaders of Turkey and other host nations, the gathering was declared a success in raising billions of USD in pledged aid (Mahecic). Meanwhile, the situation of newborn Syrians born abroad remains as precarious as ever.
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