By Ammar Izz
Istanbul, May 2015( Al Araby Al Jadeed)- Syrian couple Mohammad and Sulaf had to pay $800 to an agent in order to secure legal documents to prove their marriage in Turkey, to ensure that the wife would be entitled to her full rights in case of divorce, and all the children would be protected. They had to take these precautions until the marriage document could be registered in their war-ravaged country.
After waiting for three months, the Syrian agent – who has a Turkish partner – came back with a list of required documents, which included “an individual record of civil status” or identity card authenticated from the Syrian ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs as well as the municipality of Damascus, in order to prove that the groom is single, which is one of the main conditions asked for in Turkey to register the nuptials. Unlike, in Syria, Turkey has a ban on polygamy.
Mohammad and Sulaf are between 3% and 5% of those lucky enough to register their marriages in Turkey. There have been 11,500 marriage contracts carried out since the break of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and until the end of 2014, according to statistics gathered by the Association of Syrian Refugees, a Syrian organization based in Turkey and opposes the regime in Damascus. It looks after the welfare of Syrian refugees in the diaspora.
The fact that they had some money helped in securing some piece of mind for this couple.
As for the others, they are lost, unable to provide proof of parentage for their children until they are registered in Syria and then gain citizenship, which is passed from father to offspring, in accordance with the Syrian constitution. According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, the number of Syrian children born in Turkey has risen from 400 to 50,000 between 2011 and 2014.
So who is behind the suffering of the Syrian refugees who have gotten married and given birth after fleeing war in their country?
The responsibility is shared between the Civil Status Laws in Turkey, which forbid the authentication of marriage certificates without proof that the couple to be married are single, from their country of origin, as well as the inability of international organizations to create mechanisms that could provide such proof or intervene with the host countries.
The refugees suffer because the regime of Bashar Al Assad refuses to grant the required documents to those it labels “terrorists”, “escaping from conscription” or part of the opposition who have left the country and must be punished. There is also the pointless existence of the ministries created by the temporary Syrian government and working out of the Turkish border city of Gaziantep. Documents such as Identity cards and passports issued from there are not recognized by Istanbul as is the case with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad.
As for the International organizations, they are unable to force the Turkish government to correct these legal human rights cases because Ankara has to consent to this.
What created more tension for the refugees is the competition between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has Islamic roots and seeks to topple the Assad regime in Syria and the opposition in Turkey, led by Kemal Kalicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who promised to get rid of the Syrians in his country if he won the June 6, 2015 elections.
The Turkish government which classifies as “guests” more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees, some of whom are living in 23 refugee camps distributed amongst 10 states, refuses to register any marriage certificate between two Syrians or a Syrian and a Turk until all requirements under the civil status laws are met.
Turkey is aware that by doing this it is in violation of international human rights laws, which force host countries to register refugees so that they do not remain without documents.
However according to Etyeb Mahcupyan, then senior advisor to the former Prime Minister Daoud Oghlu, Turkey deals with the Syrian file as it would “an internal policy matter and not a humanitarian issue.” Mahcupyan explains that “we are not talking about one or two refugees, we are dealing with 1.6 million Syrians and with borders we cannot close lest we are subject to international criticism.” He adds: “We are aware of the extent of the Syrian human catastrophe in our country and are working with the government on activating new resolutions for the Syrians, after the elections.
With the lack of official Turkish statistics on marriages, divorces and births amongst the Syrians, this investigative reporter documented 30 humanitarian cases involving those who got married and had children, but have been affected by the war.
Loneliness in Exile
Mohammad and Salam are two Syrians from the opposition and wanted by the Syrian regime. They got married but are unable to travel to their country to secure official documentation. The Syrian embassy in Ankara closed in early May 2011, while the consulate in Istanbul operates with a limited number of employees. It prolongs the process of granting Syrians who are part of the opposition any of the necessary documentation required for marriage. This is the complaint of many Syrians living as refugees.
The situation becomes even more complicated because the Syrian regime has refused to provide many of them with official documents and does not accept to “renew passports claiming desertion and escape from conscription as an excuse or carrying out terrorist activities.”
A Turkish man, married to Samira, 28, decided to divorce her after two months of marriage without registering the union, because he was unable to do so. Samira, a Syrian refugee, lost all her monetary entitlements as a wife, which included the dowry, and ended up on the street. However, she is thankful she is not pregnant. She currently resides at Al Islahiye refugee camp near the city of Gaziantep.
Um Nidal’s Turkish husband passed away without her registering the marriage, despite having given birth to two children. Because of this, she was unable to obtain Turkish citizenship after three years in accordance with citizenship laws!
Syrian journalist Samer cannot afford to pay $1000 to register his marriage to Hind in Turkey or the birth of his first child Mohammad. “All that remains for me to do is travel illegally to a European country in order to bring my family there,” he says.
Alaa, 25, another Syrian, is looking for work where he lives at Urfa 1 Camp (Tal Abyad). He hasn’t registered his marriage because he is unable to provide the necessary documents or the money required for agents.
Contrary to this, Al Araby Al Jadeed newspaper has documented a union between Syrians through the travel of the couple from Turkey to areas of Syrian opposition stronghold in Syria. There, and with the help of relatives, they succeeded in authenticating the marriage in areas under the control of the regime, without requiring them to pay more than $100.
Ghassan, 30, works in real estate in Turkey and his wife Hanan is in design. They are not considered part of the opposition; they travelled to Damascus to get the required documents and it cost them $100 in fees and stamps.
However, the situation is not as easy for thousands of Syrian refugees especially those who do not make more than $400 a month at best. In fact the average monthly income of those I met was barely $100.
Claims of No Documentation
Alaa lives in Urfa camp near the city of Tal Abyad. He and his wife receive $80 a month from AFAD Organization (Turkish Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Authority). This young man got married a year ago and did not register the union with the help of agents. He says “ my wife is seven months pregnant and I don’t have any documents to prove my marriage.”
Prior to the Syrian revolution, registering a Syrian marriage in Turkey did not take more than two weeks and the cost was no more than $100 in fees for the state municipality in which the couple resided as well as the Syrian municipality and ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs.
Having lost their legal status, the Syrian “guests” in Turkey are now dealt with as foreigners in all matters, despite there being temporary laws that protect them, issued a few months ago.
Tip of the Iceberg
The inability to register marriages is the tip of the iceberg. There are many aspects that remain unclear. The Turkish Ministry of Interior responded to an official request saying it is unable to obtain precise figures as to how many marriages between Syrians or Syrians and Turks have been registered in Turkey since 2011. This, they said in a written reply, requires additional effort as well as research and analysis. “Therefore,” the ministry says, “we cannot provide a positive response.”
The director of the International Protection Department at UNHCR, Volker Turk, states on the agency’s website that “many Syrian children have not been able to secure proof of Syrian citizenship, so they remain stateless.”
Child protection expert at UNICEF, Isabella Castrogiovanni says: “UNICEF does not have the precise statistics for the number of Syrian births that are stateless.” However she does add that “the organization’s 2013 estimates point to almost 80% of Syrian refugee children who are without documentation.” Castrogiovanni believes that the situation is getting worse in areas of opposition and in host countries.
In a written response, the UNHCR in Ankara stated that Turkey is officially registering the births of Syrian children and that the Agency has published instructions in Arabic, Turkish and English urging parents to register their children at their places of residence.
It isn’t easy to get these instructions quickly to those who have been affected by the situation. I accompanied two Syrians who wanted to officially register their children. We took with us the UNHCR “instructions brochure”. The civil status department where they resided refused to register them asking for an authenticated marriage certificate as a condition for registration.
Selin Unal, the official in charge of media at the Agency says “UNHCR does not register Syrian children since this is the duty of the Turkish authorities and they are covered by temporary protection laws. She adds: “We are working with the Turkish government on registering the children.”
The UNHCR published on its official website that it may help those who cannot obtain any documentation to prove their marriage in Turkey, by providing them with social status documents that may facilitate procedures. Al Araby Al Jadeed, however, proved through a non-scientific survey of 30 Syrians that none of them had received such a document.
It also showed that half the sample have the problem of an unregistered marriage and find difficulty in obtaining a “civil status record” asked for by the Turkish municipalities as the civil status laws stipulate.
It was also proved that 45% of them did not carry a passport and only 5% could prove marriage, which is almost equivalent to the 3% stated by the Syrian Refugee Association.
The UNHCR says it restricts its duties to providing advice to the Turkish Authorities in this matter, despite the fact that one of the principles stated on its websites declare the responsibility of the host countries and the Agency in issuing documents. “All countries including those which have not signed the Geneva Convention are required to adhere to basic protection laws which are an integral part of international laws pertaining to providing protection, education, transport, grants and documents.
Ibrahim Kaya, professor of law at Istanbul University, spoke in an interview over the phone with Al Araby Al Jadeed about the “need to issue new legislation and laws pertaining to Syrians, in parliament and there isn’t anything to impede that.”
Kaya says that “Syrians have no right to permanently reside in Turkey, they must go to a third country or return to their own, when they want, willingly.” He pointed out that “Turkey does not issue them refugee status as it only recognizes Europeans as refugees in its territories, in accordance with the 1951 treaty on refugees.
Mustapha Qasem, head of administrative and legal affairs at the Syrian Ministry of Justice belonging to the temporary Syrian government says that “according to international human rights laws, host countries must register refugees so that no one goes without registration or documentation.”
Turkey had refused an offer from the temporary Syrian government to grant Syrians wishing to register their marriages official papers according to the minister of Justice at the temporary Syrian government Fayez AdDaher. He says the Turkish response was “this is a sovereignty matter which Turkey rejects.”
Sources at the Syrian Ministry of Justice in Damascus were quoted by the Syrian Al “Iqtisady” magazine in Damascus as saying that the documents proving marriage at refugee camps have no value according to Syrian laws. And there are no legal cases that can be referred to relying on DNA for proof of parentage.
Ineffective “98” and “AFAD” Identity Cards
The official in charge of the Syrian portfolio at the Turkish Foreign Ministry declined to respond to questions posed by this reporter, citing “pressures at work prevented him from doing so.” After several email exchanges, the same response came back from the Turkish embassy in the Jordanian capital, Amman. However, the media office attached to the Ministry of Interior responded to the questions presented by this reporter.
The response cited a set of bureaucratic rules that were required for the registration of marriages in Turkey. It confirmed that “the registration of a marriage required an individual civil status record showing social status for whomever wanted to get married,”
According to Al Araby Al Jadeed, Turkey had recently eased restrictions for Syrian mothers giving birth at clinics and hospitals and provided them with a report from the hospital with the names of both parents, at most asking for passports as documentation proof.
However in the cities, the child is not given any document other than a hospital record if the parents do not have proof of marriage. In refugee camps the child receives an AFAD identity card belonging to the camps. It carries no weight other than in the camps.
The temporary protection law went into effect end of October 2014. Based on that, Syrians were provided with a temporary identity card known as the “98” card. But the card doesn’t include a national number, even though it is meant to regarded as an official residency card. Despite official statements declaring otherwise, this card is so far not recognized by Turkish corporations and is not effective in issuing any documents, renting a house or opening a bank account.
Turkish corporations deal at whim with this card; some employees might be willing to turn on an electric meter for a Syrian tenant who carries this card, but many will refuse. Researcher and political activist Mohammad Zahed Ghul explains that “with this card Syrians can enter all hospitals for free. In fact, the Turkish government hospitals do not permit entry without it. The government’s aim is to keep tabs on the number of Syrians in the country, with this card, as well as keep an eye on security. It definitely will not replace the individual civil status record that is required to register a marriage unless a special law for Syrians is passed or the Turkish law is amended! A third possibility would be to recognize Syrians as official refugees.”
Adel Daoud is a Syrian political and social activist living in Turkey for the last 25 years. He says “the Turkish law states that any child born on Turkish soil shall be treated as any Turkish child enjoying all the rights that international children have until the age of 18 years. At that age he/she has the right to request Turkish citizenship, which he/she shall be granted if he/she is officially registered in the Turkish civil registry. Prior to that his parent’s marriage should have been registered either in his/her country of origin or in Turkey.”
According to this law Daoud adds that “a Syrian woman who has married a Turkish man but without documentation and has given birth to children, with no divorce taking place, can take the matter to court and ask for DNA testing. This might be difficult but can be successful.” The legal office in the temporary Syrian government says that “Turkish courts do not recognize any unions after marriage even if pregnancy occurs or there is offspring.”
Justice Abdul Ilah Ahmad, director of the legal office at the temporary Syrian government’s ministry of Justice says this matter “is a political decision with no possible solution as it requires a central decision from Ankara such as the issuing of new laws or amending a law and making exceptions for Syrians living in Turkey. Both the government and the opposition seem reluctant to do so.
Isolated Attempts of No Legal Weight
The Free Justice Council consists of a group of judicial personalities that have broken free from the Syrian regime. According to judge Ibrahim Hussein from the Free Lawyer’s Union – Syrian lawyers who have disassociated from the regime – a deal was signed between the two entities to document cases marriage, divorce and births.
However, he says that these documents “have no legal bearing in Turkey or abroad. They can only be used as proof during the political conflict in Syria by those who do not have proof of marriage in Turkey.”
At Al Urfa camp near the Turkish city of Tal Abyad, where nearly 35,000 Syrians reside, the official in charge of the Syrian consultation office, who identified himself as Abdul Fattah says that “the office registered 800 marriages and 20 divorces, in cooperation with the AFAD organization, since it opened its doors one and half years ago. The wives, however, did not receive any compensation.
Abdul Fattah, in charge of the office which was set up to document cases of marriage and divorce in the camp, adds that there “is no real legal value to these documents as the Turkish courts, municipalities and corporations, as well as offices of the Syrian regime do not recognize the documents issued by this office, as is also the case with international organizations.”
There are 21 refugee camps for Syrian civilians and two for the military officers in Turkey. However, offices such as this only exist in three of them; at Urfa/Tal Abyad, Ras ElEin/Gilanbilar, Yildag/Hatai.
Um Nidal, who lives in Istanbul with her two children from her deceased Turkish husband, is still hopeful a solution will be found to end her plight. Samira, another Syrian, says she no longer expects anything after her husband left her at one of the refugee camps without a divorce settlement, something that could have been secured through Turkish courts had their marriage been authenticated.
Hind and Samer’s dream of documenting their marriage in order to register the birth of their first child has also faded. Samer has gone to Holland seeking the necessary documentation there. Meanwhile Alaa is waiting to go back to Syria and has no idea what kind of future awaits his unborn child.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that over 2 million Syrians have fled the country since the start of the revolution. This number represents the Syrians who have been registered as refugees and those awaiting registration by the Agency. By the end of August 2014 this number included 110,000 refugees in Egypt, 168,000 in Iraq, 515,000 in Jordan, 716,000 in Lebanon and 460,000 in Turkey,
Children under 17 years of age constitute 52% of this group. There are also 4,25 million displaced persons inside Syria according to information provided by the UN office for humanitarian affairs. All these numbers combined add up to more than 6 million people who have had to leave their homes, which means there is a larger number of Syrians who have been forced to leave their homes and move elsewhere.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net