‘I am here’: New census in northern Syria seeks to document unregistered Syrian Kurds

In northern Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories, the question of who counts and who is counted has been fraught for decades. In 1962 an exceptional census conducted by the Syrian government stripped thousands of local Kurdish residents of their citizenship. Known as the “maktoumeen,” they were deprived of basic rights and services for nearly half a century as a result.

Today, another census is underway in Kurdish-held Jazirah canton, corresponding to most of Syria’s northeastern Al-Hasakah province. This time, it is being carried out at the behest of the Kurdish-led Self-Administration governing the northern Syrian territories collectively known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan.

Called “I Am Here,” the census campaign in Jazirah began on September 19 and is being conducted by the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), a nonprofit think tank operating in Rojava.

A team of 11,000 volunteers in the Kurdish-held Jazirah canton is counting residents to “track the rapid changes that Syria—especially Rojava—is experiencing,” Sultan Tamo, a member of RCSS and the General Census Council tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

The count is in preparation for local elections to be held in the next six months, Tamo says, and will record the numbers of residents, displaced Syrians and refugees living in Rojava, as well as Syrian Kurds living abroad.

So far, the census has covered Jazirah and Afrin, a Kurdish canton northwest of Aleppo. It will expand to include other Kurdish territories in northern Aleppo, Raqqah and Idlib provinces.

 The census team recording information from Jazirah residents. Photo courtesy of Arta.FM.

Notably, Tamo and his team will also record an accurate number of the maktoumeen. These unregistered residents lack identity cards and are not listed in official regime population registers, Human Rights Watch reported in 1996.

A presidential decree in 2011 returned citizenship to the maktoumeen as part of concessions during the early days of the Syrian uprising as the regime positioned itself as the protector of minorities. However, only a fraction of those eligible have since obtained their national ID cards.

So far, “people received us warmly,” said Tamo, whose team has collected information in east and west Jazirah. Their next step is recording the population in Qamishli and Al-Hasakah, the two largest and most diverse cities in the canton. 

Not all Syrian Kurdish parties support the census, however.

On September 24, the Geneva Office of the Kurdish National Council, the main political opposition to the PYD party heading the Self-Administration, criticized the census in a statement.

Now is “neither the proper time nor the appropriate space” for a census, read the statement, citing the high levels of instability and demographic change in Syria, in addition to the number of Syrian Kurds living outside of Rojava.

Tamo sees the census as a way to support those outside the country.

“We want to know the size of the diaspora so we can support them and secure their return.”

Q: Why are you conducting a census now?

This isn’t the first census, and it won’t be the last. It’s necessary to know the numbers of displaced people, refugees and Syrian Kurdish expatriates so we can act accordingly.

[Ed.: RCSS completed an initial census of the north Syrian territories governed by the Self-Administration two years ago.]

As for our decision to run a census now, the UN stipulates that any nation has the right to conduct a census within 10 years. And this is for countries that have a degree of security and stability.

We decided to conduct a census to track the rapid changes that Syria—especially Rojava—is experiencing.

 The census team speaking with a Jazirah resident. Photo courtesy of Arta.FM.

Q:  Many Syrian Kurds are currently living outside of Syria. How are you including them in the census?

We’re recording the numbers of expatriates as well. We collect information about them from their friends and relatives who still live here. We also accept information expatriates send to relatives through social media that can better confirm their identity.

We want to know how many Syrian Kurds are living abroad and where they are living so that we can contact those countries in the future. As you know, the democratic Self-Administration has representative offices abroad. We’re not far from establishing consulates or maybe even embassies. We want to know the size of the diaspora so we can support them and secure their return to Rojava.

We’re planning for all of this.

Q: What about displaced residents who are originally from areas outside of Rojava? Will you include them in the census?

Of course. We’ll document displaced residents who came from other cities in Syria over the years. We’ll also record Kurdish refugees who came from abroad. We’ll document everyone who is in Rojava and categorize them based on the nature of their residence: refugee, displaced and so on.

Q: Will the census include unregistered Syrian Kurds or Arab settlers?

We’ll determine if someone is an original resident of Rojava based on his place of birth, current residence and tribal registration number.

[Ed.: Syrian identity cards include a specific registration number for each tribe, and the city where the tribe originated.]

We’ll register the maktoumeen, undocumented Syrian Kurds, who were stripped of their citizenship [by the regime] during a 1962 census, to determine how many live in Rojava. When we record their information, we’ll include their original place of origin.

Of course we’ll also document foreigners. We’ll record information on Arab settlers based on their identity cards.

[Ed.: In 1973, Hafez sent Syrian Arab settlers to Kurdish territory in northeast Syria as a part of his “Arab Belt” policy, which sought to Arabize the region, Human Rights Watch reported.] 

In this way, the current census aims to document every single person in Rojava and his status, as well as Syrian Kurds living abroad.

Q: How are you conducting the census? What procedures are you taking?

We created a work plan for the census, splitting it into three different stages: preparation, fieldwork and data entry.  We’ll document, sort and analyze the information electronically.

We have short and long-term goals for the census. Our short-term goal is having an accurate number of eligible voters. We’ll present this information to the High Commission of Elections to use during the elections that will happen in the next six months.

Our long-term goals include implementing projects and future plans to serve the community. To do this, we need information about the number of displaced residents, refugees and expatriates as well as statistics on the educated and illiterate. We also need to track employment rates, economic status and disability statistics.

We finished the initial preparation stage, which lasted around two months.

During this time, we held more than 25 sessions to train 11,000 people on conducting the census.

We trained teachers on the democratic Self-Administration’s Board of Education. We also trained commune and council members of the Democratic Society Movement, in addition to village councils.

[Ed.: The Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) is a PYD-led organization established in 2011 that administers Rojava. It created councils that are directly elected and overseen by communal committees, Chatham House reported. Communes are neighborhood-level councils.]

Q: When did you begin the census? How long will it last?

On September 19, we started in east Jazirah and counted the population of seven villages and towns: Tarbah Sabe, Tal Hamis, Tal Kojar, Karki Laki, Ramelan, Jal Aga and Dirik.

The results were very good, and people received us warmly. We didn’t encounter people who refused the census or disapproved of this project.

Then, on September 23 we covered five towns in west Jazirah: Amouda, Al-Darbasiyah, Sari Kaneh, Zarkan Abu Raseen and Tal Tamar. The reception there was also good. It really boosted our morale and encouraged us to continue with this project.

So until now, our project is largely successful, and we’ll continue with it. We still have to count the population in Qamishli and Al-Hasakah.

*Correction: A previous version of this report erroneously attributed the 1962 Syrian census to the government of Hafez al-Assad, who did not take power until November 1971. Syria Direct regrets the mistake. 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.