AMMAN: Syrians living in rebel-held territory lack access to state-issued civil documentation securing their familial and property rights, as international aid officials express concern that holding opposition-distributed documents may be taken as antagonistic political acts by the Syrian state.
Bashar al-Assad’s government is the only entity inside Syria that can issue internationally recognized civil documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, property deeds and other notarized evidence of major life events.
Government-operated civil affairs offices closed years ago in territories captured by rebels. Syrians living in opposition areas with no access to government offices have no means to obtain government documents that establish legal rights over their children and property. For Syrians in rebel territory, a potential trip to the closest government civil affairs office could mean crossing active frontlines or facing detainment by the government.
Some opposition actors such as the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) operate their own civil registries in areas where they maintain a presence. But opposition-issued documents are not recognized internationally, and the current trajectory of the war in favor of the government casts doubt on their long-term value.
One of the Syria Interim Government-supported family ledgers issued in Daraa last November. Photo courtesy of Horan Free League.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is “concerned” that possession of documents issued by opposition authorities and even extremist groups could be “perceived negatively by the state and may place individuals at risk,” Syria-based UNHCR spokeswoman Maya Ameratunga told Syria Direct in a recent interview.
“We highlight the importance of obtaining neutral documentary evidence of life events,” Ameratunga said, “rather than documents which may put them at risk of harm and be perceived as political.”
Last fall, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) began issuing family ledgers bearing their logo to Syrians residing in opposition-held southern Syria. The ledgers are one of the most recent attempts by the opposition to provide documents parallel to those issued by the Syrian government.
The risk of alternative documents to state-issued paperwork “outweighs the benefits,” one Jordan-based United Nations (UN) official working on civil documentation told Syria Direct, asking not to be named.
“The UN wants to find a way to get people documentation,” the official said, but in a way that “does no harm.”
The most viable option to register life events, UN officials tell Syria Direct, seems to be for civilians to keep a collection of apolitical documentation from non-affiliated local actors such as religious figures, doctors, judges and community leaders that can later be used by the Syrian government to issue official paperwork.
The UN classifies civil documents issued in Syria into three camps: official papers distributed by the Syrian government, documents issued by non-state actors, and local documents—attestations by apolitical entities that an event took place. When Syrians cannot obtain government documents, the UN advises them to seek local documents.
One example presented by a UN official working closely on civil documentation issues centers around certifying the birth of a child. Parents living outside government territory would obtain an attestation from a medical professional, notarize it with a local judge or community leader, and then file it until they can obtain official documentation from the Syrian government.
“We see no problem with local provision of evidence in support of life events,” UNHCR spokeswoman Maya Ameratunga told Syria Direct. Local, evidentiary documents used to later obtain official documentation “does not challenge state authority and should not be perceived as a political act,” she said.
UNHCR takes a “do-no-harm” approach, Ameratunga said. It lobbies the Syrian government to avoid retaliatory measures against civilians, but is also concerned about Syrians obtaining documents that could be perceived as political by the government.
Last November, the SIG launched a campaign to issue family ledgers to civilians in rebel-held Daraa province in Syria’s south. The Daraa Office of Civil Affairs has begun distributing a planned 50,000 ledgers, says its director, Suleiman al-Qarfan.
“There has been a huge demand by residents for these family ledgers,” al-Qarfan told Syria Direct. The ledgers are small booklets about the size of a passport that bear the SIG logo across the front cover, with personal details about family members inside.
Distribution of the documents comes after “great pressure from citizens and [local] aid organizations,” al-Qarfan said. With the ledgers, he added, opposition authorities in Daraa province can keep track of their constituents and local humanitarian groups can register individuals for aid.
Documents issued by the SIG are valid in areas where they have a presence, the Jordan-based UN official told Syria Direct. “But if you show these documents outside of [SIG] areas, it can get you into big trouble.” The official did not elaborate.
‘The right to have rights’
In late November, representatives from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) along with others from UN agencies and international organizations conducted back-to-back meetings with Syrian state officials in Damascus, and opposition leaders in Amman. The goal, UN and other humanitarian officials say, was to discuss potential solutions to the civil documentation issues that both the Syrian government and opposition might agree to.
“The right to civil documentation is the right to have rights,” said UNHCR official Maya Ameratunga, who organized the November meeting with Syrian government representatives in Damascus last month. “There is a need for a comprehensive and coherent approach by all actors.”
At the meeting in Damascus, a Syrian ministry of interior official in charge of civil affairs indicated that the Syrian government would take a “flexible approach” to registering the life events of Syrians outside state-controlled territory, Ameratunga said, so long as the documents issued did not challenge the authority of the state.
“It seems that [the government of Syria] would look at evidence of life events and issue documents,” Ameratunga told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
A day after the meeting in Damascus concluded, the NRC and UN organized a second workshop in Amman. Various opposition actors from northwest and southern Syria, including the SIG, attended.
By the end of the meeting, UN officials tell Syria Direct, opposition leaders agreed to organize and move forward jointly on the civil documentation issue. The organizers recommended that all documents issued by local actors in rebel-held Syria be apolitical in nature and conform to Syrian law.
Daraa Civil Affairs director Suleiman al-Qarfan attended the Amman workshop in November, calling it a “positive” meeting. International organizations present agreed to suggest to the UN Office of the Special Envoy (OSE) that opposition-issued documents be recognized by the UN, al-Qarfan added—something that UN and humanitarian officials working closely on the topic denied.
Opposition groups are “of their own initiative reaching out to the OSE,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Ameratunga. “It’s not true that the UN is working with them to petition [the] OSE to recognize such documentation.”
Another non-UN official present at the Amman meeting told Syria Direct that efforts to help civilians record their life events is “ongoing, but the purpose isn’t to create something that will then be recognized.”
“That’s the responsibility of the Syrian government.”