A street in Douma on July 26. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP
AMMAN: Under siege in East Ghouta last year, Umm Hassan was running out of options.
The mother of three from Douma, the largest city in what was once one of Syria’s most important opposition-held territories, had no way of accessing official institutions in government-held Damascus so that she could register her children’s births.
It had been hard enough for Umm Hassan to register her eldest—requiring a dangerous journey through one of East Ghouta’s underground tunnels once linking rebel- and government-held territory, so that she could reach a civil registry office in Damascus proper. But last year, with pro-government forces steadily tightening Ghouta’s siege, that route was closed off.
Instead, like thousands of other East Ghoutans, Umm Hassan turned to local opposition-run institutions in the besieged pocket.
“Of course I registered them,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who’s controlling the town—now or before—a child has a right to have their lineage documented.”
This was a matter of practical necessity as much as identity or moral imperative. Without valid birth certificates, Umm Hassan would not have been able to enroll her children in school, let alone get them access to much-needed humanitarian aid.
After East Ghouta returned to government control earlier this year—on the back of a gruelling military offensive and forcible evacuations north that ended in March—all marriage, birth and death certificates issued by East Ghouta’s opposition-held institutions became invalid overnight.
Umm Hassan had to navigate a situation in which her two youngest children’s documents were not recognized by the Syrian government. In other words, they no longer legally existed.
Now, the Syrian government is facing the monumental task of resolving cases and issuing new papers for tens of thousands of residents on the doorstep of Damascus. And as areas of Syria transition out of conflict, countless numbers of Syrians are having to navigate similar legal limbos that may define their futures—and access to basic public services including education and healthcare, as well as property—for years to come.
‘The papers I have could get me in a lot of trouble’
Civil status procedures are usually the domain of local registry offices operating under the Syrian Ministry of Interior’s Civil Affairs Department. But as the opposition asserted control over East Ghouta and other areas of the country, parallel systems of governance emerged with independent local councils, courts and police forces. In the absence of official government structures, these new entities assumed responsibility for issuing civil documentation such as birth, death and marriage certificates.
The Syrian government does not recognize documents issued by opposition-run institutions, which is why the process has transformed from a purely administrative matter to a legal process that requires the appointment of a lawyer and a visit to a local courthouse. That means paying legal fees and, for most Ghoutans at least, an intimidating drive into Damascus itself.
Motaz a-Shami, a 30-year-old Saqba resident who lived in Ghouta throughout the siege years, now finds himself in a legal limbo.
“Going to Damascus costs me money,” he says, “plus I need permission to leave.”
Travelling to central Damascus is not without its risks. The highway from East Ghouta into the heart of the city is dotted with checkpoints run by pro-government forces. And traversing that road without valid documents can be dangerous.
“The papers that I have now could get me in a lot of trouble, since they were issued by an opposition body,” a-Shami fears. “But destroying the documents before acquiring alternative papers would be a problem too.”
Instead, a-Shami says, he will wait until the Syrian government reopens courthouses across East Ghouta. And although the government opened a courthouse in Arbin in mid-July—the first of its kind in the formerly opposition-held suburbs since they returned to government control—tens of thousands of East Ghouta’s residents are still compelled to visit Damascus to renew their papers.
This isn’t the only barrier to registration. Some residents may abstain from filing their records with government institutions.
“Because identity documents are the primary means of identifying someone, they are also a means of control and monitoring,” an aid worker in Damascus tells Syria Direct, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work.
“So a lot of people fear replacing the documents because that immediately makes them identifiable.”
Although many East Ghouta residents ultimately hope they will be able to re-register for new, government-issued documents—whether through the courts in central Damascus, or once government services resume in East Ghouta itself—the process is not always easy. Often applicants find themselves caught in a web of legalese, with one document required before another, only complicating the situation further.
Abdul Rahman Hussein, a 25-year-old Arbin resident, explains how his wife struggled to get a new family booklet because they had registered their marriage, as well as their child’s birth, in an opposition-run institution. A small passport-sized ledger that contains personal details about each family member, the family booklet remains one of the most important forms of civil documentation in Syria.
“We were surprised when they weren’t satisfied with any of the documents we had with us,” Hussein says, explaining how the family had to first re-register for marriage and birth documents before they could then get the family booklet.
‘The right to have rights’
Civil documentation is also deeply intertwined with issues of housing, land and property rights.
Throughout Syria’s seven-year conflict, territories have fallen out of government hands and back again, with different institutions—including those run by opposition and even hardline Islamist groups—taking on the task of registering local populations. And although Ghouta residents tell Syria Direct they remain hopeful that local authorities will be relatively understanding, these legal grey zones are just one example of the messy legacy of civil status procedures left behind by seven years of conflict.
Analysts suggest these problems will continue long after Syria’s war is over.
“It is one of the most decisive factors shaping how recovery [and] post-conflict stabilization will take place,” the anonymous aid worker in Damascus tells Syria Direct, adding that civil documentation also carries great personal significance to citizens themselves.
“It is a way of helping people reintegrate and return to life as normal, and to regain who they were and who they are.”
Registration of childbirths in particular is one of the most critical forms of civil documentation. While the lack of a birth certificate will most directly affect children’s access to public services—including healthcare and education—for children born in opposition-held territories, the full extent of uneven registration may not be felt for years.
“Really it depends on the government and how flexible they're going to be with regards to access to education and healthcare,” Zahra Albarazi, senior researcher at the Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion, tells Syria Direct.
Until now, she says, there have been no concrete government policies addressing this issue, with decisions largely “based on the discretion” of the authorities.
By law, Syrian minors can apply for a national ID card when they reach the age of 14. But without the necessary documents to prove when and where they were born, in the future civilians may be unable to prove they “even belong in the country,” Albarazi says.
The risk of becoming stateless is particularly acute in situations where a family’s father is absent or dead. According to Syria’s patrilineal nationality laws, women cannot pass down nationality to their children, and while exceptions do exist for children of unknown fathers, such laws were, according to Albarazi, never implemented in practice.
Before returning to her home in Douma from a temporary government-run shelter set up in the wake of this year’s offensive—and determined to secure a relatively stable future for her two children—Umm Hassan managed to make a trip into Damascus to register her two youngest children.
“How can you have a child who is not recognized by the state?” she says. “I destroyed the old papers. They have no value any more.”