Le­banon’s state­less: Locked out of so­ci­ety

Miss­ing pa­pers, fees, bu­reau­cracy leave po­ten­tially tens of thou­sands on mar­gins

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: When smuggler boats started car­ry­ing Syr­ian refugees from Le­banon’s Tripoli to­ward Europe, Samir “Atris” al-Hus­sein con­sid­ered join­ing them on the dan­ger­ous jour­ney.

Hus­sein, 26, is nei­ther Syr­ian nor a refugee. He was born and raised in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tab­baneh neigh­bor­hood to a fa­ther and mother who both hold Le­banese ci­ti­zen­ship.

But be­cause his par­ents did not reg­is­ter his birth be­fore his first birth­day, he is trapped in limbo, legally nonex­is­tent in the eyes of the state.

State­less­ness has meant ob­sta­cles in nearly ev­ery area of life, Hus­sein said, from go­ing to school to find­ing work, get­ting mar­ried and re­ceiv­ing health care.

At one point, he said, think­ing he had noth­ing to lose, he con­sid­ered go­ing to fight in Syria for the salary mil­i­tant groups would pay.

He aban­doned that idea, but then con­sid­ered pay­ing a smuggler $3,000 to take him to Turkey in hope of mak­ing his way from there to Ger­many, where he would pass him­self off as a Syr­ian refugee.

“I didn’t have any­thing here – I was blocked from do­ing ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I thought I would ap­ply for asy­lum and maybe they would give me na­tion­al­ity there.”

‘THEY JUST DON’T EX­IST’

Among the state­less in Le­banon are Pales­tinian refugees, un­reg­is­tered chil­dren of Syr­ian refugees and other groups in­clud­ing Kurds and Be­douins. Chil­dren of Le­banese moth­ers mar­ried to non-Le­banese men may also be state­less, as Le­banese women don’t have the le­gal right to pass on their na­tion­al­ity.

There are also po­ten­tially tens of thou­sands of peo­ple like Hus­sein.

De­scen­dants of Le­banese fa­thers and grand­fa­thers like Hus­sein in the­ory have the right to Le­banese ci­ti­zen­ship, but be­came state­less be­cause of doc­u­men­ta­tion issues.

This group in­cludes peo­ple who were not counted in Le­banon’s 1932 cen­sus, and their de­scen­dants.

It also in­cludes those, like Hus­sein, whose par­ents hold Le­banese ci­ti­zen­ship but did not reg­is­ter their child’s birth be­fore the one-year dead­line.

In Hus­sein’s case, he said, his par­ents mar­ried in 1982, dur­ing the Civil War. Amid the chaos, they didn’t reg­is­ter their mar­riage.

As a re­sult, they also couldn’t reg­is­ter their chil­dren.

In other cases, ad­vo­cates said, par­ents do not reg­is­ter their chil­dren be­cause they are poor and re­luc­tant to pay even the nom­i­nal fees re­quired, or sim­ply be­cause they do not re­al­ize the con­se­quences of fail­ing to do so. In other cases still, chil­dren are born out of wed­lock, and some­times a fa­ther de­lib­er­ately fails to reg­is­ter a child be­cause the par­ents have sep­a­rated or are hav­ing mar­i­tal dif­fi­cul­ties.

As a re­sult of their sta­tus, state­less peo­ple lack “ba­sic rights such as for­mal em­ploy­ment, pub­lic health ser­vices, in­her­i­tance, property rights and civil reg­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing birth and mar­riage reg­is­tra­tion,” Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokes­woman with the United Na­tions refugee agency, said in a state­ment.

“The ma­jor­ity of these per­sons have never left Le­banon and have deep roots in the coun­try,” she said.

Samira Trad, a pol­icy and de­vel­op­ment ad­viser with Ruwad Houk­ouk, or “Fron­tiers Rights,” an NGO that pro­vides coun­sel­ing and le­gal sup­port to state­less peo­ple in Le­banon and ad­vo­cates for le­gal re­form, said the group es­ti­mates that at least 60,000 peo­ple of Le­banese de­scent are liv­ing in the coun­try without ci­ti­zen­ship.

Pock­ets of state­less peo­ple are con­cen­trated in poor and ru­ral ar­eas in the north, in Baal­beck-Her­mel and in parts of the south, she said, but they are also scat­tered around Beirut.

“Their sit­u­a­tion is worse than a refugee – they just don’t ex­ist,” said Lea Baroudi, head of MARCH, an NGO work­ing in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tab­baneh and Ja­bal Mohsen neigh­bor­hoods that has re­cently taken up the is­sue of state­less­ness.

THE IM­PACTS OF LIV­ING STATE­LESS

The prob­lems around Hus­sein’s lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion be­gan in child­hood, he said. He did well in school, but dropped out aged 13. Without iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, he said, he would have been un­able to sit for the Brevet exam to con­tinue his ed­u­ca­tion, so stay­ing in school seemed point­less.

“I stopped be­cause I couldn’t con­tinue,” he said. “I got to the sev­enth grade and thought, ‘I have two years – why should I lose them this way?’ So I left school. It was the same with all my sib­lings.”

Un­able to work as a reg­u­lar em­ployee, he has picked up odd jobs paint­ing. On more than one oc­ca­sion, he said, he was ar­rested af­ter be­ing stopped at a check­point and un­able to pro­duce iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

He also faced ob­sta­cles when he wanted to get mar­ried, he said – his wife’s par­ents were re­luc­tant to al­low her to marry a state­less man.

In the end, they re­lented, and the cou­ple mar­ried.

But now Hus­sein’s prob­lems have car­ried down to his chil­dren.

When his wife went into pre­ma­ture la­bor with the cou­ple’s twin daugh­ters a year and a half ago, Hus­sein said they had to search des­per­ately to find a hospi­tal that would al­low them to en­ter. Be­cause he is state­less, the cou­ple had no doc­u­men­ta­tion of their mar­riage.

“She was in the car with me and blood started com­ing down, and no one ac­cepted us, no hospi­tal,” Hus­sein said. If he hadn’t been able to call MARCH’s Baroudi, who in­ter­vened to get them ad­mit­ted to a pri­vate hospi­tal, he said, “my wife and child would have died.”

The prob­lems also carry on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion in less dra­matic ways.

Taha al-Aas has lived his whole life in the vil­lage of Fnay­deq, in the moun­tains of Akkar, where a large por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion is state­less. His fa­ther like­wise did not have ci­ti­zen­ship when he was born – be­cause of a pa­per­work er­ror, Aas be­lieves, al­though he is un­sure of the de­tails. His fa­ther died when Aas was 8 years old. Be­fore his death he was able to get ci­ti­zen­ship for him­self, but not for his son, Aas said.

Aas never went to school and, at 25, strug­gles to write his name in Ara­bic. His sta­tus has blocked him from join­ing the Army – as has been the case for many young men in the area – and from hold­ing any gov­ern­ment job. He worked for a while as a cook in a restau­rant but is now un­em­ployed. He said that he has be­come ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing on the edges of so­ci­ety.

“For me there aren’t ef­fects – the ef­fects on my chil­dren are more im­por­tant,” he said. Still, Aas said he hasn’t con­sid­ered go­ing to court to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion.

“There’s noth­ing I can do – I can’t fix it,” he said.

THE COURTS

In fact, a rem­edy is avail­able, at least in the­ory. Fam­i­lies that miss the reg­is­tra­tion dead­line can pe­ti­tion for birth reg­is­tra­tion in court.

Hus­sein said his fam­ily has been try­ing this route since he was a child, so far without success.

“In prin­ci­ple, it’s sup­posed to be sim­ple – noth­ing is sim­ple, but rel­a­tively speak­ing it’s a sim­ple pro­ceed­ing be­cause it doesn’t even re­quire a lawyer to ap­ply,” Ruwad Houk­ouk’s Trad said. But in prac­tice, she said, “it’s a pain. In­stead of be­ing a pro­ce­dure to ac­cess jus­tice, it is a lot of ob­sta­cles.”

The po­ten­tial hurdles in­clude dif­fi­culty gath­er­ing doc­u­ments, court de­lays, and the ex­pense – in­clud­ing at­tor­ney fees for those un­able to nav­i­gate the court sys­tem them­selves and DNA tests, which are rou­tinely re­quired to prove pa­ter­nity. All that means the process may drag on for years, or come to a halt en­tirely when fam­i­lies find them­selves un­able to pay.

Mustapha Latesh, 26, who is also from Bab al-Tab­baneh, said that like in Hus­sein’s case, his par­ents did not reg­is­ter their mar­riage, and as a re­sult, his birth – and those of his four sib­lings – were not reg­is­tered.

Latesh said the fam­ily has been try­ing for 15 years to have the chil­dren’s ci­ti­zen­ship rec­og­nized through the courts. Over that time, he es­ti­mated they have paid a to­tal of $25,000 to $30,000 in at­tor­ney fees and other ex­penses. At one point, he said, when he had a job at ABC Ashrafieh Mall in Beirut, 70 per­cent of his salary was go­ing to the case.

“One time we get an at­tor­ney who lies to us; an­other time the court re­fused us, and we don’t know why,” he said. “Some­times we’ve reached a stage where we had hope that we would get our IDs, and then the judge sud­denly re­fused our ap­pli­ca­tion and we had to start over.”

As an ex­am­ple of the fac­tors caus­ing the case to drag on, he re­called that at one point the court asked to speak to the wit­nesses listed on the chil­dren’s birth cer­tifi­cates. One of the wit­nesses had died, so the court asked for the death cer­tifi­cate, which the fam­ily was un­able to pro­duce.

Still, Latesh said he is not giv­ing up, es­pe­cially now that he has a 2year-old son of his own.

“My fa­ther is Le­banese, and my mother is Le­banese. It’s our right to have Le­banese na­tion­al­ity,” he said.

WORK­ING TO­WARD SO­LU­TIONS

Some progress has been made on the is­sue of state­less­ness in re­cent years, Trad said. A work­ing group com­posed of Ruwad Houk­ouk, var­i­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries and the U.N. has been meet­ing, which has re­sulted in some mea­sures be­ing taken; for in­stance, the Health Min­istry agreed to cover hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for state­less peo­ple on a case-by-case ba­sis, she said. But, Trad said, “it’s not a le­gal frame­work.

“We have de­ci­sions taken on an ad hoc ba­sis, which is good, but they can be changed at any minute.”

The group has pro­posed that birth reg­is­tra­tion be con­ducted au­to­mat­i­cally at hos­pi­tals, tak­ing the onus off par­ents, as well as that Le­banese women be given the right to pass on their na­tion­al­ity.

MARCH is launch­ing an un­of­fi­cial cen­sus in Bab al-Tab­baneh and Ja­bal Mohsen to get sta­tis­tics on the scope of the prob­lem there.

Baroudi said the group will also cam­paign for leg­is­la­tion that would give par­ents a longer win­dow of time to reg­is­ter their chil­dren and ex­pe­dite the court process for those who miss the dead­line. “Na­tion­al­ity is a ba­sic right,” Baroudi said. “It should not be like any trial that takes years and years and years.”

For now, Hus­sein said his fam­ily is wait­ing for a so­lu­tion.

“The most im­por­tant thing is to get pa­pers for my chil­dren – that’s my dream,” he said. “I want my chil­dren in the fu­ture to learn and be able to go to univer­sity and do some­thing with their lives.”

‘It should not be like any trial that takes years and years’

Hus­sein and Latesh’s par­ents are Le­banese, but they didn’t reg­is­ter their mar­riage and so couldn’t reg­is­ter their chil­dren.

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