‘Shadow of a human’: Syria’s stateless Kurds navigate shifting authorities decades after losing citizenship

A market in the Hasakah city of Amouda in September. Photo courtesy of ARTA FM.

AMMAN: It took 31 years before Syrian-Kurdish lawyer Bassa Othman was finally given the right to become a citizen of the only country she had ever known.

With unrest quickly spreading across Syria in early 2011, President Bashar al-Assad passed a three-sentence-long presidential decree granting nationality to Othman and thousands of other Syrian Kurds known as ajanib—literally, “foreigners”—stateless by virtue of a census conducted by the Syrian government in northeastern Hasakah province back in 1962.

“An eternal barrier between us and humanity was removed,” Othman, a Hasakah native, says of the 2011 decree, seen by some observers as an attempt to placate simmering discontent among members of Syria’s largest ethnic minority as a nationwide uprising began to take hold.

Without Syrian nationality and the basic legal rights that accompany it, Othman and those like her—thought to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands prior to 2011—had for decades encountered countless restrictions touching all aspects of life.

Members of the stateless Kurdish community are forbidden from public sector jobs, voting, owning property or businesses and obtaining college degrees. Their marriages often have to be conducted under the table, and they struggle to travel freely within Syria—let alone abroad.  

Othman says that, for her at least, those restrictions have faded since the 2011 decree. Nearly a decade after completing her studies, she was finally able to join the lawyer’s union and begin training—something that would have been impossible before.

“[Now] we are treated as any other citizen would be,” she tells Syria Direct from her home in the city of Derik, near Hasakah’s border with Turkey.

Yet the decree was far from a cure-all. Some 56 years after the 1962 census, many of Syria’s Kurds are still waiting for the basic rights that come with nationality. Not only have thousands of the so-called ajanib been unable or unwilling to register for nationality—and therefore remain stateless to this day—but a second group of Kurds who were stripped of their rights in the 1962 census received no mention whatsoever in the 2011 decree.

And despite piecemeal improvements introduced by the de facto Kurdish-led authorities that control much of the country’s northeast, the legal status of Syria’s stateless Kurds still hangs in the balance. Surrounded by competing institutions and spheres of control, stateless Kurds’ future prospects have been thrown further into doubt by the tentative beginning of negotiations between Kurdish authorities and the Syrian government regarding the fate of Syria’s northeastern provinces. 

A market in Hasakah city on October 8. Photo courtesy of ARTA FM.

1962’s exceptional census

The 1962 census came in the wake of Presidential Decree No. 93, signed by then-president Nazim al-Kudsi. It would become one of the first in a string of discriminatory measures aimed at Kurdish communities in Syria throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s purportedly designed to “Arabize” traditionally Kurdish, resource-rich areas of the country’s northeast.

Implementation was swift. On October 5, 1962, government bureaucrats were sent in to survey towns and villages across Hasakah province over the course of a single day. The stated aim of the census was to “purge” government registries of “alien infiltrators” who had purportedly crossed Turkey’s southern border and illegally registered themselves inside Syria.

But in practice, eyewitness testimonies recounted numerous irregularities as government representatives—accompanied by local community leaders known as mukhtars—went knocking on the doors of unsuspecting residents and demanded to see documents proving that they had been residents in Syria since 1945 or earlier.

Some residents of the province—whose population at the time was largely illiterate and would likely have likely been unaware of the census ahead of time—scrambled to find records only for them to be rejected, while others could produce none. Still others lost nationality simply for not being at home at the time the census was taken.  

The result was that even within the same household, immediate relatives sometimes ended up with different legal statuses and different identification documents, as they found themselves categorized into one of the three groups of Syrian Kurds that emerged following the census.

The first were those who were able to provide the necessary documentation—or in some reported cases, an equivalent bribe—and therefore maintained citizenship.

A second group, the ajanib, failed in their attempts to demonstrate legal residency, and were registered in official records as foreigners, later receiving special red identity cards issued by the Ministry of Interior.

Meanwhile, a third group consisted of Kurds who were not registered in official records at all—either because they refused to participate in the census or simply weren’t reached by surveyors. They became known as maktoumeen al-qayd—“those with concealed files”—or, in other words, undocumented. In lieu of any form of official identification, many maktoumeen to this day carry what is known as a “identification certificate”—a white paper signed by a local mukhtar indicating its holder is unregistered but known to local authorities. 

By sundown on October 5, 1962, some 120,000 Kurds—about 20 percent of the country’s Kurdish population—were effectively stripped of their citizenship, creating a stateless population that only grew in the ensuing years as many of their Syrian-born descendants inherited their statelessness.

An example of the red cards issued to ajanib. Photo courtesy of STJ.

Over half a million Syrian Kurds were estimated to be stateless prior to the 2011 decree that granted citizenship to ajanib, according to numbers provided by the government’s Hasakah Personal Status Department to independent rights monitor Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ).

Those same numbers suggest that more than 350,000 Kurds have been able to acquire citizenship since 2011, including most ajanib and some maktoumeen, even though the decree does not concern the latter group. According to the STJ report, a number of maktoumeen were able to “resolve their legal status by becoming ajanib and then Syrian citizens.”

But for the tens of thousands who remain stateless, repercussions of the 1962 census continue to reverberate.

“Their situation remains as it was,” says lawyer Othman, “[as] a group of human beings with no identity and no rights.”

Still stateless, under a new regime

Today, Hasakah’s residents—stateless or otherwise—find themselves in a province governed by the Self-Administration, a Kurdish-led political authority that unilaterally declared its control over majority-Kurdish regions in 2013, filling a power vacuum after the Syrian government withdrew the previous year.

Following its establishment, the Self-Administration formed an array of governing committees and institutions—including schools, courts and a police force—to provide public services to residents in its territory, which currently comprises all of Hasakah province as well as portions of Aleppo and Raqqa.

The Self-Administration also maintains indirect influence over historically Arab areas of Syria’s northeast through its affiliations with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed, Kurdish-majority force established in 2015 to combat the Islamic State that has installed governing councils to administer areas under its control. 

The Hasakah town of Amouda on October 7. Photo courtesy of ARTA FM.

Within Hasakah province in particular, however, Self-Administration bodies exist side-by-side with a sparse network of Syrian state governmental and security offices that continue to operate in the largely Kurdish-held area, despite power shifting five years ago.

According to officials and residents who spoke to Syria Direct, ajanib and maktoumeen have equal access to the services and institutions run by the Self-Administration—while those managed by the Syrian government remain restricted, just as they were before the war.

“After the formation of the Self-Administration, Kurdish ajanib and maktoumeen were granted all of the rights held by other [members of the local community]—including civil, political and economic rights,” says Fouzah Youssef, a senior official in the Self-Administration.

“There is no discrimination on the part of the Self-Administration,” she tells Syria Direct, adding that stateless Kurds can legally study in Self-Administration-run schools and universities, compete and vote in local elections and work in public sector jobs within Self-Administration institutions. 

Life between Self-Administration and the Syrian government

In part due to the Self-Administration’s ostensibly inclusive policies, life for maktoumeen and ajanib within Hasakah is in some ways easier than it had been under the Syrian government, according to Thomas McGee, an expert who has researched Kurdish statelessness since 2009.  

“Their statelessness, if they are still stateless, is not an obstacle so much to gaining services,” he says. “There are other obstacles—but they’re not the same ones blocking them from entering school, gaining medical treatment or working as a taxi driver.”

For Nobar Ismail, a stateless journalist from the northern Hasakah city of Qamishli, Self-Administration rule has allowed him to obtain a driving license and register property in his name—two rights that were long denied to him by the Syrian government.

Hasakah city in November 2017. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.

And yet, after decades without even the most basic legal and civil rights, the 33-year-old says he doesn’t consider the developments to have altered his status in any meaningful way, since he still lacks Syrian citizenship. 

“We’re still maktoumeen,” he tells Syria Direct. “A maktoum cannot attain his rights until he is given an ID and citizenship.”

Self-Administration official Youssef acknowledges that under the majority-Kurdish authority’s control, all residents still depend exclusively on the Syrian government’s Ministry of Interior for internationally recognized documentation—national ID cards, passports and civil records like birth, marriage and death certificates.

“The Self-Administration cannot solve their problems entirely,” Youssef admits.

Still, McGee says that while Kurdish-led authorities—and affiliated military forces—maintain their hold on the northeast, “the biggest issues for stateless Kurds are actually when [they are] outside Syria, or when in Syrian government-controlled areas.”

Since the war began, a considerable number of stateless Kurds are believed to have fled the country, joining earlier waves of undocumented Kurds who left Syria to seek asylum elsewhere, often by irregular means. Abroad, the challenges continue, as they navigate foreign legal systems often with no form of official identification or recognized legal status.

‘A shadow of a human’

For Syrian Kurds who have not found asylum outside the country, on-off negotiations between a Kurdish-led alliance—including the SDF and its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC)—and the Syrian government may be the next turning point in a decades-long struggle to acquire citizenship. 

Although Assad has repeatedly expressed his intention to reclaim all Syrian territory, the US-backed alliance—which currently controls more than a quarter of the country—hopes to leverage its position to solidify its gains and maintain some form of “decentralized” authority. 

Amid the expected items up for discussion—alongside service provision, security and borders—is the future of stateless Kurds.  

“The cause of the ajanib and maktoumeen will be an essential issue [in talks with the government],” says Self-Administration official Youssef. “[Our] demand will be the provision of their full rights, without any form of discrimination.”

Nonetheless, clear challenges lie ahead as Kurdish-led authorities jockey for influence over a resurgent central government that has appeared unwilling to make concessions to its rivals.

“The concern is that if the Syrian government returns,” says McGee, “what will it mean in terms of the wider civil registration landscape?”

“There’s just no certainty about the future going forward."

Navigating such uncertainty has been a lifelong constant for maktoum journalist Ismail. In the hope that his two sons, aged two and three, might one day escape the same fate, his sole focus for now is acquiring a Syrian ID by maneuvering the current system—as some maktoumeen have reportedly been able to do since the 2011 decree.

Until then, Ismail feels he and those like him are destined to live in a legal grey zone, set apart from other Syrians, with no official recognition that they exist.

“Someone who is maktoum can be considered almost-human,” he says, “or the shadow of a human.”

“He resembles a person, but leaves no trace behind.”

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. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.