It has been 59 years since an unjust special census was carried out in Syria’s Kurdish-majority province of al-Hasakah, which resulted in thousands of Syrians being stripped of or denied Syrian citizenships overnight. Census victims not only lost their citizenships, but were subsequently deprived of all civil, political, cultural, and economic rights stipulated in international charters and conventions. Khodor Mano, 62, is one of the victims of this census. As a boy, Khodor was the only one of his siblings who was not registered officially in Syrian government databases, leaving him stateless. Khodor’s repeated attempts to become a citizen in the country where he was born have all failed, even after the issuance of Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011.
Field researchers with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) met Khodor in the Washo Kani/al-Twaineh makeshift camp, where he and his family now live after they were displaced from their home Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê when Turkey invaded in October 2019. Khodor is blind, and he invites researchers to sit inside the flimsy tent he now calls home. His voice shakes when he tells STJ why becoming a citizen is so important to him, the fate of his children and grandchildren.
“Obtaining citizenship cannot compensate me for the oppression and deprivation I have been suffering for decades. I am a blind old man who does not have many years left,” Khodor tells STJ. “All that matters to me now is that my children and grandchildren do not suffer the same fate as me. I am afraid that they will curse me after my death since I helplessly passed down my statelessness to them.”
An inside source in the Civil Affairs Directorate of al-Hasakah told STJ that Khodor is only one of more than 46,000 Syrian maktumeen living in Syria today. The number does not include the thousands who died stateless or are now residing outside Syria. Like Khodor, many Syrians’ struggle with statelessness began in 1962 with a Special Census in al-Hasakah, which set out to confirm the citizenship of tens of thousands of residents in the Syrian province of al-Hasakah in a single day. Overnight, Syrians, especially Kurds, in al-Hasakah found themselves belonging in one of three categories:
- Syrians enjoying the Syrian nationality;
- Ajanib, in Arabic meaning “foreigners”, are individuals living in Syria who are not recognized by the Syrian government as citizens despite being born and having lived their entire lives in Syria, instead, they are registered as stateless residents;
- Maktumeen, in Arabic meaning “the voiceless or the muted”, are individuals living in Syria who are not formally registered or recognized by the Syrian government.
However, the 1962 census is not the only cause of statelessness in Syria. Some Syrian communities, like Arab nomads and some Kurdish groups, do not know they should, or do not know how to, register their births officially with the Syrian government to become citizens. Additionally, Palestinian Syrian refugees were deprived of the Syrian nationality under the Casablanca Protocol to preserve their right of return. Moreover, some Syrians became stateless as a result of their parents’ illegal marriage (ex: inter-religious marriage).
The risk of becoming stateless increased in Syria after the onset of the war, especially among displaced Syrians. The war made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to register births in displacement camps or in regions outside of Syrian government control. Civil registries were only active in areas under Syrian government control – often far out of reach for many civilians. Additionally, children born in exile and children born from parents unable to register their marriages in government courts also become stateless.
In order to investigate the challenges stateless Syrians face today, STJ conducted 17 interviews, between 15 November 2020 and late February 2021, mostly with stateless Kurds who tried to apply for citizenships in northern Syria after the withdrawal of the Islamic State (IS). STJ analyzed the witnesses’ statements, examined the documents they filed for acquiring the citizenship, and monitored the government’s handling of the application processes. We found that Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011 has not been applied uniformly to all ajanib. The Decree’s application differed from one Civil Registry to another, with some ajanib receiving citizenship and others arbitrarily not. Additionally, STJ determined that many Syrian Kurds likely experienced discrimination from the Ministry of Interior in Damascus, resulting in thousands of their applications being stalled or denied.
As the process of applying for citizenship, or even hiring an attorney for that purpose, requires a permission of the security services (namely the Political Security Service), STJ also discovered that several stateless Syrians refrained from applying for citizenship, fearing arrest or investigation by security forces when filing for the required security permission. Other stateless Syrians refrained from submitting because they mistrust Syrian government institutions, which are known for rife corruption. The government failures in uniformly applying Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011, and stateless Syrians’ mistrust of the Syrian government, has allowed nearly 20,000 ajnabi to remain stateless.
Stateless Syrians, many who are deprived of Syrian nationality and barred from obtaining citizenship, lack the basic human rights entitled to all people by international law. In other words, deprivation of nationality and statelessness result in deprivation of legal personality as well as the set of rights and freedoms that protect human dignity, such as the right to life, equality, fair trial, freedom of movement inside and outside the country, access to education, health, work, property and participation in public life. Therefore, in order to address the crisis of statelessness in Syria, STJ recommends:
- To issue an inclusive legislation granting citizenship to all stateless Syrians, especially the maktumeen, who were deprived anew of their right to citizenship by Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011. The law granting citizenship to all stateless Syrians must be applied instantly, smoothly, and uniformly.
- To include in any new Syrian constitution– written by the UN’s Constitutional Committee or other entity – that all Syrians have the right to the Syrian nationality and shall not be stripped of it except on clear and specific grounds established by the same constitution. Denationalization must be carried out under a reasoned court judgement against them individually and should not affect their relatives nor future generations.
- To enshrine in the constitution the supremacy of international instruments and conventions over domestic law, especially those conventions related to human rights.
- To restrict the access and interference of security forces in the affairs of the judicial authority and the work of the Bar Association, as today applying for nationality and hiring a lawyer requires permission from Syrian security services.
- To amend the current Syrian Nationality Law to allow women to pass on their nationality to their children, and thus promote equal opportunities for women and men in all Syrian communities to pass their nationality on to their children.
On the tenth anniversary of Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011, which grants Syrian Arab Nationalities to those registered as ajanib in al-Hasakah, but ignores the maktumeen, there is a local belief that the problem of statelessness in Syria has been fundamentally resolved. To discover if that was true, STJ’s field researchers spoke to stateless Syrians in northern Syria to determine whether the 2011 Legislative Decree had solved their challenges with statelessness, and if not, why.
This paper cites 17 interviews with stateless Syrians – whose names have been anonymized for security reasons– who tried and failed to rectify their legal status and become Syrian citizens. STJ interviewed:
- Seven families who were rendered stateless (maktumeen) by the 1962 census.
- Three families, among them Kurds and nomadic Arabs, from the provinces of Raqqa and al-Hasakah, who became stateless due to their ignorance of the procedures of registering births.
- Three children, among them Arabs and Kurds, who became stateless because of the inability of their parents to register their marriages due to the conflict.
- A family whose members were deprived of nationality by the 1962 census, though the father had served in the Syrian Army for four years, between 1967 and 1970.
- A family whose father could not register his children (ajanib) due to inability to prove parenthood, despite the fact that he acquired the Syrian nationality under Decree No. 49 in 2011.
- Stateless (maktumeen) orphaned children whose deceased parents could not officially register their marriage under the Syrian law because of their different religions – a Durzi father and a Muslim mother – thus their births were not registered.
- A Yazidi couple who could not register their marriage, and thus their children, because their marriage was considered inter-religious, due to the woman being registered as Muslim in the civil records – due to the absence of a Personal Status Law for the Yazidi religion – while the man is registered as Yazidi.
Additionally, STJ analyzed the Syrian laws, decrees and instructions related to nationality and compared them with related international instruments and conventions. We also monitored these legislations’ practical application in courts and governmental institutions. Our legal experts verified the witnesses’ testimonies and documents. Based on witnesses’ experiences in light of the domestic laws and relevant international legal paradigms, we developed a set of recommendations and created a road map to address the crisis of statelessness in Syria.
 Legislative Decree No. 49 of 2011 – Granting Syrian Arab citizenship to those registered as ajanib in the records al-Hasakah, the Syrian Parliament’s website, 7 April 2011, https://parliament.gov.sy/arabic/eindex.php?node=5570&cat=4451&nid=4451&print=1&pm=1 (last accessed: 4 March 2021)
 Sing. maktum/maktumah, i.e., unregistered stateless people.
 “Understanding statelessness in the Syria refugee context”, NRC, http://syrianationality.org/en/nationality-documentation-and-statelessness-in-syria/stateless-populations-in-syria (last accessed: 4 March 2021).
 Article 48 of the Personal Status Law promulgated by Decree No. 59 of 1953 states: “The marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim is void.”
 For more see paragraphs (62, 63, 64 and 65) of the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which was issued at the forty-sixth session of the Human Rights Council (22 February – 19 March 2021). Pages 16 and 17, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquirySyria.aspx (last accessed: 4 March 2021).
 “Born in exile, Syrian children face threat of statelessness”, UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2014/11/54589fb16/born-exile-syrian-children-face-threat-statelessness.html (last accessed: 4 March 2021).
 Article 28 of the Syrian Civil Code promulgated by Decree No. 26 of 2007, and its amendments states: “If the parents’ marriage is not registered and they have a child the civil registrar must not register this birth until after the parents’ marriage has been duly registered.”, Syrian Ministry of Interior website, http://www.syriamoi.gov.sy/portal/site/arabic/index.php?node=55333&cat=1831& (last accessed: 4 March 2021).
 STJ was provided with these documents exclusively by stateless people who tried to resolve their legal status at the personal status departments.
 Military service is mandatory for male Syrian citizens over the age of 18.