Lebanon’s stateless: Locked out of society
Missing papers, fees, bureaucracy leave potentially tens of thousands on margins
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.
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.