Syrian refugees and the conundrum of civil registration in Lebanon.
Haytham and Layla are both children being raised by loving parents in a warm family environment. But under the rosy image lies the drama of thousands of refugees living in Lebanon: the two children are not registered, born to parents whose marriage is not legally recognised in the country.
According to the Lebanese government, around 130,000 Syrian children are not registered at birth. Most of the time, they are the fruit of unregistered marriages. If a child does not get the required documentation within the first year of birth, the situation becomes very complicated and a legal process is needed.
Mohammad, 23, and Malak, 21, were married nearly two years ago in a traditional tribal ceremony held in their tent in the Bekaa valley. Today, they have a two months old son, Haytham. “In Syria, it is easy: you get married in court and you get a family record booklet. Here, we don’t know the full process, and anyway it costs money we don’t have,” said Mohammad.
To make ends meet, Mohammad works in the surrounding agricultural land, planting and harvesting potato, cucumber and onion for £3 per day. His wife stopped working when she became pregnant. If they want to register their marriage, the first of seven steps is a stop at the religious court which costs £75. In order for that to occur, the husband needs to leave the camp and use public transportation.
In a country where the vast majority of refugees are now living illegally, since they don’t have valid residency papers, crossing a military checkpoint is far more dangerous than having an unregistered marriage.
“We have to buy nappies and clothes for the baby, not to count the expensive healthcare we get here. How can we afford civil registration fees?” said Malak.
Ahmed, 28, and Amal, 18, both from Homs, got married three years ago in the same circumstances as Mohammad and Malak. They have two daughters, 2 years and 9 months old. While the husband has valid papers, the wife doesn’t have any identification papers, and getting those from Syria is impossible because it means going back to the war-torn country.
“First, we need my wife’s ID, then we need a proper marriage that the Lebanese authorities recognise, then we can think of registering the girls. All of this put together is way beyond our reach or means,” said Mohammad, lying on the bare floor of his tent, planted amid tobacco fields.
More than 70% of Syrian refugee families live below the poverty line (UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees 2016, Lebanon). They came to Lebanon looking for safety, and found themselves stuck in a maze of official rules and regulations, while they struggle to ensure that their children have enough food, are not battling diseases, and are as warm as can be in tents that can be snowed under in the winter.
Today, they find themselves at the centre of a debate in the region and beyond on whether they should return to Syria or not. The big question remains: what will happen to those stateless children and their ‘illegal’ parents?
It is vital that the Lebanese government relaxes the rules allowing refugees to obtain and maintain valid residency, through a simple process that does not incur any cost or require refugees to obtain a Lebanese sponsor. Once refugees stop fearing arrests and the ever-looming threat of deportation, they will be able to move around freely and take necessary steps to obtain civil registration papers.
Until this happens, thousands of Syrians in Lebanon will keep on turning to international organisations to get support navigating the complex system. Oxfam is one of these organisations, giving refugees advice, putting them in touch with agencies that provide legal support, organising information sessions, and providing useful phone numbers and contact details.
In Mohammad’s tent, a laminated sheet of paper distributed by Oxfam has all these numbers: who to call in case of medical emergency, to enquire about aid distribution, to report domestic violence, to ask for legal assistance, etc. It is tucked between the tarp and the wood plank, in a place easy to reach.