Eight Years of Displacement: Syria’s Statelessness Still Unidentified

By Thomas McGee and Zahra Albarazi [*]

While statelessness is not a new problem for Syria, the civil war has brought about additional risks and instances of becoming stateless. It has also transformed situations and vulnerabilities for those who already lacked Syrian citizenship. Greater efforts are urgently needed to understand the impacts of statelessness within post-conflict and forced displacement contexts, and as a platform for change there needs to be heightened understanding and identification of the issue. This article will outline the characteristics of the main stateless profiles, and then will go on to focus on the challenges and need for identification of stateless persons and risks of statelessness.

Street life in Aleppo, Syria. Photo credit: Thomas McGee.


In over eight years, the Syrian conflict has brought new and unforeseen challenges to the country, region and the world - as well as reshaping old problems. One such challenge is addressing the issue of statelessness.[1] Statelessness is not a new phenomenon in Syria, since the country was already home to one of the largest populations of stateless persons in the world prior to the war (Van Waas 2010; ISI 2014), with discrimination embedded in its nationality law and practice (Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and ISI 2016: 5-7). However, the protracted conflict has significantly shaped the issue in two key ways: changing the nature of existing statelessness problems and producing new instances of statelessness. Looking forward, there is an urgent need to address challenges facing stateless communities and prevent new cases of statelessness.

Relevant stakeholders in the Syrian refugee context - including states - must proactively work on how best to prevent new cases of statelessness and to protect the rights of those already stateless. Unfortunately, strategic responses to address statelessness have been limited; largely due to a lack of understanding and identification of the issue. Understanding who is affected by the problem can inform strategies to combat the discrimination they face and advocate for an end to situations perpetuating statelessness in the first place. This article seeks to highlight the current gaps in identification of statelessness and suggest good practices to overcome them.

Statelessness among Syrians: historic and new profiles

Existing Situations

As the two main affected groups in Syria, statelessness for Syrian Kurds and Palestinians has been the result of specific historic events – the 1962 discriminatory census in Syria’s north-eastern Hassaka governorate and the 1948 Nakba (mass expulsion of Palestinians) respectively.[2] Both groups have faced conflict-induced vulnerabilities and new experiences in displacement contexts since 2011 (NRC and ISI 2016).

While Syria’s political unrest in 2011 led the government to concede to the naturalisation of one sub-group of stateless Kurds (the ajanib), this action excluded another category (the maktumeen). The latter, and ajanib unable to benefit from the concessions (Albarazi 2013), generally faced increasingly restricted freedom of movement and heightened risk of detention in the early years of the conflict due to an inability to present recognised identity documents at checkpoints that were proliferating the country. When fleeing Syria, maktumeen and non-naturalised ajanib have also found themselves excluded from some formal resettlement solutions available to other vulnerable refugees in neighbouring countries (ENS and ISI 2019). Of those reaching Europe, there is a common narrative of complex legal limbo due to their statelessness.

With regards to Palestinians, their statelessness vulnerabilities are also significant. Firstly, both Jordan and Lebanon had restrictions on allowing Palestinians to cross their borders when fleeing Syria (UNHCR 2017), with only Syrians admitted, which meant that stateless Palestinians were often left stranded at the border and unable to flee (HRW 2014). Families were split as to who could and who could not enter a neighbouring country (Amnesty International 2014). Additionally, some have also found themselves without protection from any UN agency. The UN mandated organisation to provide assistance for Palestinian refugees is UNRWA. Many Palestinians who had not registered with the agency in Syria found themselves in need of this assistance once displaced, but registering with UNRWA in secondary displacement contexts is challenging if not impossible. Additionally, as Palestinians it was not possible to register with UNHCR, and therefore in practice many fell into a protection gap where they were served by no UN agency (Erakat 2014).

New Cases

Meanwhile, gender-discriminatory provisions within Syrian legislation, as well as the present context of conflict and displacement are generating new cases of individuals at risk of statelessness. Women whose children are born with no legally established paternity continue to face problems in passing their Syrian nationality to the next generation. This is especially problematic in displacement or asylum contexts, since a Syrian woman cannot pass on her own nationality when the child is born outside the country.[3]

An additional challenge is the lack of access to civil registration procedures in neighbouring countries and in Syria, particularly for birth registration. Birth certificates record where an individual was born and who the parents are, so without proof of this information it may become difficult for an individual to access their nationality. In neighbouring countries, problems of access include complex procedures, lack of awareness of their workings, the need for documents that are unobtainable and government employees taking large fees for authenticating documents. This often leaves sub-groups within the Syrian refugee community at particular risk of statelessness, such as children born within female-headed households or child marriages, undocumented refugees and refugees not registered with UNHCR (NRC and ISI 2016).[4] In Syria, civil registration becomes complicated for individuals who have lived in areas outside government control. There were no NGOs or humanitarian actors working on facilitating documentation in these areas to compensate for the breakdown of governmental systems. Alternative systems were not well established (IRC 2016). This means that those who lived in these areas, and ultimately end up elsewhere in second or third waves of displacement, may be completely undocumented or have documents not considered legitimate.

The challenges of being both stateless and a refugee

‘Isn’t it better to say I am a Syrian national but I lost my papers?’ (Stateless Syrian, Greece)

The displacement of Syrians to neighbouring countries and to Europe means that the

stateless population is dispersed across wide geographical areas, and under various foreign legal systems, many of which have no formal statelessness determination procedure in place. Identification of cases will help stakeholders develop strategies on how to prevent new cases and how to protect existing cases; however, this is yet to be done effectively. Obtaining reliable statistics and information about the number and profiles of stateless Syrians and those at risk of statelessness, remains notoriously difficult for a number of reasons – but primarily due to the lack of awareness and identification by those who work with them. Additionally, stateless Syrians are often reluctant to disclose their lack of nationality as a result of perceptions that this might expose them to further vulnerabilities and challenges with bureaucratic and security structures, both in Syria and when abroad.

Displacement to Neighbouring countries

‘We have always been maktoumeen, but now we are maktoumeen and living in another country. That means we really, really don’t belong. I don’t know what the future will bring for my girls.' (Khalid, Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan Region of Iraq)

In neighbouring countries to Syria there is very little attempt at identifying statelessness or risks thereof. The majority of these countries have not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore do not carry out their own refugee determination procedure or have any legal ‘refugee’ status (Akram 2018). None of these states has a Statelessness Determination Procedure either. This means that the identification of these individuals is left to UNHCR, where statelessness is not always recorded. Additionally, there is sometimes a tendency, like in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for the authorities and refugee protection actors to opt not to distinguish between stateless and citizen Syrian refugees (McGee 2016).

While it may be argued that such an approach avoids discriminating against certain refugees on the basis of nationality status (including lack of nationality), this may simultaneously conceal the vulnerabilities of those who are stateless. These ‘hidden’ vulnerabilities can be activated when refugees leave that country, such as being unable to access assistance available for Syrian nationals, or if they seek to travel to other destinations (ENS and ISI 2019). To resolve this, people without nationality may seek to return illegally to Syria in the hope of acquiring documentation (possibly through bribes) or may resort to acquisition of fraudulent documents. Such negative coping strategies are known to put stateless refugees at risk.

Also, a lack of awareness and understanding of statelessness among other stakeholders means that the statelessness of many stateless refugees is ignored in response projects. For instance, many lawyers providing free legal assistance to Syrian refugees across the region have little familiarity with the main statelessness risk factors and what statelessness means in the context. Perhaps one solution here would be to have integrated teams of staff or volunteers from the host and Syrian communities (the latter being expected to have more awareness of the statelessness problem). One of the few Syrian lawyers qualified to practise in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq explained that, ‘I receive many cases from those who are stateless, and usually they feel they have been misunderstood. While I am not always able to completely resolve their legal problems, I can advise them on any available solutions within Syrian law.’ Such advice must complement legal information specific to the host country in which Syrians find themselves.

Experiences in Europe[5]

One of the major concerns for stateless Syrians has been whether their status will be well understood in humanitarian and asylum systems. A number of stateless Syrians encountered during transit through Greece in early 2016 mentioned a fear that acknowledging their statelessness to the authorities might complicate their situation and reduce their chances of finally reaching refuge in northern Europe. Some stateless persons have acquired forged documents in order to travel to asylum countries (both European and neighbouring Syria) or have had them produced as they believe that their claim to be Syrian would otherwise not be considered credible. Within immigration systems, there is understandably a challenge to determine who is really stateless - so their fears are at times legitimate. Stateless Syrians have been at risk of exclusion from resettlement procedures - this for example was true in the UK’s Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) scheme (which later in 2017 expanded its selection criteria), and for selection from embassies as proving their legal link to their children was not possible.

Some states in Europe do not have a statistical category for ‘stateless persons’, but instead use other labels such as ‘persons of undetermined nationality’ - further complicating identification. This means that a stateless refugee will in most cases only be viewed as a refugee, with the stateless vulnerability ignored and not addressed. Also, the idea that refugees in Europe are automatically on a path to become nationals is not always true. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, the current situation is that many Syrians only receive ‘temporary protection’ - with no automatic route to naturalisation (Tucker 2017).

What is needed is more expertise in identifying those who are genuinely stateless or undocumented and at risk of statelessness and it is important that protection and outreach teams are able to identify those who are stateless. Given this new reality, it is imperative that staff working with Syrian refugees and ‘asylum seekers’ (be they government case workers, legal assistance providers or from asylum support charities) in a wide range of different countries are well acquainted with the particular profiles at risk of statelessness.[6] Unlike other stakeholders, the affected population themselves are usually very much aware of their stateless status, and therefore a role for many of the refugee focal points in Europe and the many refugee social networking groups is to encourage the community to inform authorities of their statelessness - or worries about the risk of statelessness - once they are settled. If this begins to be done effectively, it could put growing pressure on states to take this vulnerability more seriously.


Syria’s statelessness problem is no longer a localised and static problem, but rather a mobile issue affecting many disparate sites. From stateless persons ‘stuck’ in ‘protective custody’ on Greek islands to those seeking to prove their status within asylum appeals in Western Europe and stateless refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries, it is essential that those working with Syrians have an awareness of the multiple new risk groups of statelessness as well as the historically stateless populations from Syria. A major challenge for actors working on statelessness and assistance to stateless Syrians is the need to develop a multi-sited response, and to mainstream understanding of statelessness across actors engaging with Syrian displacement in a broad geographical scope. Identification needs to be done effectively in order to successfully prevent statelessness and protect stateless persons.

Zahra Albarazi is an independent human rights lawyer and activist, working in the field of statelessness. She is also currently a Board member and Research Director of the Syrian Legal Development Programme.

Thomas McGee is a PhD Researcher at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne and Individual Member of the European Network on Statelessness.

[*] Both authors have worked on statelessness in the Syrian context for more than a decade. Their involvement in the research projects ‘Understanding Statelessness in the Syria Refugee Context’ (www.syrianationality.org) and ‘Stateless Journeys’ (www.statelessjourneys.org) has helped in framing the content of this article.

[1] The 1954 Statelessness Convention defines a stateless person as someone ‘who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’: http://www.unhcr.org/ibelong/wp-content/uploads/1954-Convention-relating-to-the-Status-of-Stateless-Persons_ENG.pdf

[2] It should be noted that most Palestinians residing in UNRWA mandated countries, as well as other ‘stateless refugees’, are not included in UNHCR's global statistics of stateless persons.

[3] According to Syrian Nationality Law Legislative Decree 276, Article 3: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4d81e7b12.pdf

[4] For good practice examples on how some of these challenges were overcome, see UNHCR (2016) In Search of Solutions: Addressing Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa: http://www.refworld.org/docid/57dbdaba4.html. This research was generated as part of UNHCRs #IBELONG campaign to end statelessness in 10 years: https://www.unhcr.org/ibelong/

[5] A good source of information on Europe’s response to stateless refugees is: www.statelessjourneys.org.

[6] The European Network on Statelessness’s recently published Syria Country Position Paper (2019) seeks to address the lack of awareness on this issue: https://statelessjourneys.org/wp-content/uploads/StatelessJourneys-Syria-August-2019.pdf; See also the toolkit developed by NRC and ISI: http://www.syrianationality.org


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