The Children From Nowhere

Bureaucratic complications surrounding refugees from the Syrian civil war are creating a generation of stateless people

About 1,000 people are estimated to live in a small refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon. Children born here face a complicated road toward any recognized citizenship. Credit: John Knefel

BEIRUT, LEBANON – It's after 3 P.M., and the line of Syrians waiting to register with the United Nations refugee agency has dwindled to fewer than a dozen. Early this morning, the same pavilion was slammed with families looking to go through the intake process, renew their status or check how their case for asylum is progressing.

Mahmood, 27, is here with his wife and two children. He left a small city outside of Aleppo a year and a half ago, after ISIS militants –  also known as the Islamic State, or Daesh to the Syrians I spoke with  – took over the area. Initially he left on his own to figure out where his family would live in neighboring Lebanon. Then, once he found a place here, he went back into Syria to get them.

But the family's escape back into Lebanon wasn't easy. After ISIS kicked them out of their suburb, Mahmood's wife fled to another village where they had agreed to meet. Mahmood got in a car and headed for the outskirts of Aleppo. Once there, he had to walk 45 kilometers – just under 30 miles – to reunite with his family before bringing them into Lebanon. At every checkpoint on the next leg of their trip, militants asked where they were going, and why. "I said my wife was sick," Mahmood tells Rolling Stone through a translator.

The older of his two children was born in Syria; his daughter was born after the family arrived in Beirut. That's why he's here at the pavilion – to register the newborn with UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency. He'll also have to register her with the Lebanese government. If he doesn't complete the second step, the little girl could face statelessness – an official U.N. designation that is the result of not being able to prove one's nationality. Since she was born in Lebanon, Mahmood's daughter wouldn't be recognized as a citizen of Syria without the proper paperwork; nor would she be considered a Lebanese citizen simply because she was born there. (Under the law of that country, citizenship can only be passed directly from Lebanese fathers to their children.) A lack of nationality could prohibit travel and prevent access to education, employment and basic social services.

As the Syrian refugee crisis worsens, more and more children are being born without proper identification, laying the foundation for an ongoing humanitarian crisis that could last decades. "Access to birth registration is crucial," says Dalia Aranki of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "Providing a baby with legal identity, connection to its parents, place and date of birth helps to avoid the risk of statelessness."

Beyond those issues lies an even worse fear: that of being susceptible to violent groups like ISIS. The UNHCR warns that stateless people face a "heightened risk of trafficking or child recruitment."

"You're going to effectively start creating this population of people that are marginalized, that don't have opportunities – all of the indicators you look at in terms of radicalization," Amnesty International's Lama Fakih says of the growing, potentially stateless population in Lebanon. "In terms of susceptibility to recruitment, it's significant."

Mahmood says that so far the process of registering his daughter with the U.N. has been easy, and indeed it's supposed to be – when the system works. But the reality for the vast majority of the roughly 1.3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon is that registering newborns is difficult. A lack of information among those in the camps means many families assume registering their newborns is functionally impossible, according to several new parents I interviewed in one camp in eastern Lebanon. A January 2015 study from the Norwegian Refugee Council found "92 percent of the refugees interviewed were not able to complete the possible legal and administrative steps to register the births of their children born in Lebanon." The latest data show that at least 36,000 Syrian children are facing statelessness, though the real number could be far higher, as the U.N. doesn't track births of refugees whose parents aren't registered. 

The paperwork parents are required to complete is complicated and expensive for families that typically live on only $19 per person per month. If the parents haven't renewed their own legal residency – which they have to do every six months, at an annual cost of $200 – there are additional hurdles. And if the family waits longer than a year to register the newborn, they have to take the case to court and the process becomes substantially more difficult and expensive. 

Syrians now make up the largest refugee population in the world: 3.8 million people from the country have fled the war, the vast majority to neighboring countries. Roughly one in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, according to UNHCR. Further complicating the issue is Lebanon's other refugee population: Palestinians, some of whom have been living here since fleeing their homeland in 1948. Now, as Lebanon's infrastructure stretches beyond what it can sustain with an entirely new refugee population, many human rights advocates wonder how long the country can withstand the ongoing crisis. 

After driving an hour and a half outside Beirut, into the mountains and then to the picturesque Bekaa Valley, my fixer Salah and I arrive at one of the many small, unofficial camps in the area. This one is close to Zahle, the regional capital. It was established three years ago, and Salah estimates it houses  roughly 1,000 people.

Salah and I meet Ahmed, who fled Aleppo three years ago with his wife and three children. Since then, they've had a fourth child, a son, who hasn't been registered with either the U.N. agency or the Lebanese government. Ahmed's  legal residency card is expired, and although the process for renewal is fairly straightforward on paper, out here even the most basic administrative task becomes a Herculean feat. "I'm worried that if [my son] doesn't get registered he won't be able to come with us back to Syria," Ahmed says through the interpreter.

His sister-in-law, Nawal, comes out of their shelter and tells us her 10-month-old isn't registered either. Like Ahmed, she's from Aleppo, and fears that without papers, it will be difficult to bring her youngest child to Syria when the war eventually ends. She says nobody from the U.N. or the Lebanese government has come to help her make sure her child has papers. Though it's technically the parents' job to actively seek out the proper documentation, a combination of fear, misinformation and poverty inhibits most refugees from taking the necessary steps. And since Lebanon doesn't allow formal refugee camps – unlike other neighboring countries –   many of the refugees in the archipelago of de facto camps that have sprung up have little access to correct information about birth registration.

"In Lebanon, refugees are spread over 1,700 locations – they're literally spread across all of Lebanon," says UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman. "There is not one location where you would find all refugees, where you're able to convey messages, receive feedback and communicate easily." Sleiman adds that the agency is in the process of unveiling a new program to increase awareness among refugees about how to register their children, but the scope of the problem is daunting.

Ahmed walks us several tents over to meet a friend who is a new father. Abdulrahman, 23, left Aleppo in 2011. His only child, Rahim, was born six months ago, and is also not registered. Like the others, Abdulrahman wonders what will happen to his child if they're forced to stay in Lebanon, or if the family eventually is able to return to Syria. Abdulrahman had to flee his home before graduating high school, and he hasn't had work or educational opportunities since he got to the camp.

Later, standing in a small shop that contains basic food supplies, another man estimates there are at least 50 infants here who haven't been registered, though the actual number may be higher. The conditions in the camps virtually ensure that the problem will get worse. There is no access to birth control or condoms, little work and barely any recreation beyond a soccer field that refugees have to pay to use. Ahmed describes the daily routine as: "We wake up. We're bored. We fuck."

On our way out, a handful of children venture toward us to try out their English. "Hi!" says an adolescent boy before giggling and running off. His friend then runs up to me to say, "How are you?" before retreating with laughter. Salah, the fixer, and I walk back to the car to return to Beirut, and the crowd grows as we walk. A woman holding an infant tells us she's pregnant and that she already has six children. Her youngest isn't registered, and she echoes the anxieties we've heard all afternoon.

In the car back to Beirut, Salah, who is Palestinian and has a grim sense of humor, asks if I've heard the joke about the Palestinian who went to heaven. I haven't. "So he gets up to the gate, and the guy at the gate says, 'You're not on the list for heaven,'" Salah says. "Then he looks in the other book, and says, 'You're not on the list for hell.' Then he says, 'Wait! You're Palestinian? Go wait over there, in the camp.'"

It's too early to say whether the children we saw sleeping quietly will one day make similar jokes. But one thing is certain. If children keep being born without being registered – without any recognized nationality – a new generation of stateless people may already be here.