‘Where are you from?’ Facing fines and bureaucracy, refugee children in Jordan go undocumented
Located off the highway in the southern Amman suburbs, the Syrian embassy in Jordan almost looks like it’s made for long waits.
It’s a quiet day outside, as a group of elderly Syrians wearing traditional keffiyeh scarves sit on a patch of grass next to the sand-colored building smoking cigarettes and passing the time.
Aside from two flags attached to the roof of the embassy, the steel bars across the windows—shaped in classic Umayyad patterns—are one of the few hints of the otherwise rather anonymous building’s affiliation with Damascus.
On the wall between the counters, a large bulletin board is plastered with instructions for various civil status procedures: births, marriages and identity cards. Flyers address the “brothers and sisters of the nation” waiting quietly outside.
But not all Syrians feel welcome here.
“I feel uncomfortable going to the embassy,” says Bassam al-Karmi, a Syrian refugee in Jordan originally from Deir e-Zor.
“I can’t control my feelings and might start rambling on about politics and other things,” he explains, adding with a laugh, “I really can’t stand seeing the red [Syrian] flag, either.”
If possible, al-Karmi says, he avoids approaching the embassy. But when he had his first daughter two years ago, there was no way around it. That’s where he needed to go to register her birth—at least if he wanted her to be recognized as a Syrian national.
At last week’s international “Brussels III” donor conference, Jordan was commended for its efforts to provide Syrians with legal documentation. The civil status department of Jordan’s Ministry of Interior even maintains a presence in refugee camps, tasked with issuing official birth certificates.
But acquiring Jordanian documents is only one part of the process. Having them authenticated by the Syrian authorities is a whole other story.
According to several Syrian refugees in Jordan, bureaucratic procedures, lack of information and high costs are deterring them from registering their children’s births at the Syrian embassy—leaving thousands of Jordanian-born Syrian children without proof of nationality, and some potentially at risk of statelessness.
When Ahmad Qablan’s second son was born in 2014, one year after the family’s arrival in Jordan, he went through all the procedures and paperwork that were required of him to register them first with the Jordanian authorities and then with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
When his third son was born, he did the same.
Even so, years later, neither of them have Syrian documents officially proving their nationality.
A resident of a refugee camp some 70 kilometers east of the capital, Qablan would have to travel for two and a half hours each way to get Syrian birth certificates for his two sons—by submitting the papers at the Syrian embassy—only to come back again a week later to pick them up.
But the biggest obstacle to registering, he says, is the fees involved with late registration.
Even though, as a teacher, Qablan claims to have one of the highest salaries in the camp, the family is only just getting by, he says.
“Why would I go spend that money at the embassy?”
If a Syrian child is registered at the embassy later than three months after his or her birth, a $50 fine is added on top of the standard $75 registration fees. For a delay of more than a year, the fine goes up to $100.
According to al-Karmi, those costs make families postpone the procedure. But the longer they wait, the more expensive it gets. As a result, he and others around him find themselves caught in a spiral of increasing costs.
“You know the fees will increase,” he says, “but in the end people keep postponing and saying, ‘Maybe there’s another solution’.”
According to a source from the Syrian embassy, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, some refugees even choose to send family members across the border to go through the procedures in Syria itself just to save on consular fees.
Reports: ‘125,000’ Syrian refugee children born in Jordan
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and ensuing conflict, more than 125,000 Syrian children are estimated to have been born on Jordainan soil, according to reports in Jordanian media. However, with many children going unregistered with the Jordanian government, an accurate number can be hard to find.
UNHCR counts 107,268 children under the age of five in Jordan.
Even though the Jordanian government has issued nearly 80,000 birth certificates to Syrian children born in Jordan since 2015, experts say that the vast majority of those remain unregistered with the Syrian embassy.
One of the largest obstacles to registration, according to aid workers and Syrian refugees alike, is a lack of information about the procedures.
A former Daraa resident, Qasem a-Nizami attempted to navigate registration after the birth of his now three-month-old daughter, but he wasn’t sure of where to start.
According to a UN source speaking to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, there is no coordination between UNHCR and the Syrian embassy.
However, refugees can consult UNHCR about steps they need to take to register civil status procedures in Jordan.
After asking around in his community and finally talking to the Jordanian Civil Status Department’s office in Zaatari camp, where he resides—sometimes receiving contradictory information—a-Nizami soon discovered that the procedures were much more complicated than he thought.
To get a birth certificate at the Syrian embassy, refugees need to present the passport of the mother and father as well as a Jordanian birth certificate and marriage contract validated by the embassy.
When a-Nizami got married in Syria, his town was under siege, and—like many other Syrians—the couple wasn’t able to access the government civil registries responsible for recording civil status events. Instead, the couple settled with a traditional Islamic marriage, involving a sheikh and witnesses.
Today, a-Nizami has finally registered his marriage with the Jordanian authorities and is currently waiting to get the papers.
“I can’t register my daughter until I’m finished with the trouble that I’m going through now,” he says.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), having valid identity papers is crucial for refugees to access basic rights in a host country like Jordan, and children lacking a Jordanian birth certificate are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and child marriage.
“Undocumented children in Jordan cannot prove their identity, access justice and face difficulties in enjoying rights,” the NRC said in an email to Syria Direct.
The worst case scenario is that some children end up stateless—and because of Syria’s patrilineal nationality laws, this is particularly a risk for female-headed households unable to prove the nationality of the father.
But a lack of Syrian documents issued by the country’s embassy also has much more immediate consequences.
Since the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing between Syria and Jordan reopened for traffic in October after a three-year closure, at least 12,842 Syrians have made the trip across the border, according to the UNHCR.
Crossing the border, however, either requires a passport or an exit permit issued by the Syrian embassy in Jordan—neither of which can be obtained without Syrian identity documents.
For years, experts have advocated that the lack of civil documentation could be one of the most significant barriers to the return of Syrian refugees, and as governments, UN bodies and humanitarian organizations increasingly grapple with the infinitely complex question of return, the issue of civil documentation is ever more pressing.
Last week’s international “Brussels III” donor conference also underlined the need for affordable access to civil documentation for Syrians.
‘Cut from the tree of her father’
While the vast majority of Syrians in neighboring countries surveyed by UNHCR earlier this month have a hope of returning to Syria some day, less than six percent expressed intentions to return within the next year.
For al-Karmi, the hope of things changing in Syria was part of the reason why he kept postponing registration.
“I was hoping that by the time we had our first child, maybe Assad would be gone,” he explains.
And although he eventually registered his first-born daughter, the family’s youngest—who is nine months old—still only has Jordanian documents.
“For the next child we also thought, ‘Bashar will be gone by then’,” al-Karmi says. “But that didn’t happen.”
Now, he says, the family is doing what they can to make sure their daughters will grow up identifying with their Syrian roots.
“She’s been cut from the tree of her father,” he says, explaining how they’ve turned to the internet as the only way of nurturing the children’s ties to family members spread out across the globe.
“We are currently teaching her to remember the answer to, ‘Where are you from?’ and then responding, ‘I’m from Syria’,” he says.
“This is the most we can do in exile.”
But not everyone feels a need to raise their children to feel Syrian.
Abu Abida al-Hourani, a 28-year-old resident of Jordan’s Zaatari camp, is not even interested in registering his two-and-a-half-year-old son at the Syrian embassy.
“It’s better to belong to a country that will protect my son and make him feel safe and doesn’t deprive him of the most basic rights,” he explains.
“How am I supposed to raise my son to feel like he belongs in a country full of killing, displacement and injustice?”
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