Children on the Margins

Fletcher International Law Practicum drafts report on risks of statelessness and human rights violations among children in Northwest Syria
A child stands with his back to the camera in Northwest Syria

For hundreds of thousands of children living in opposition-held Northwest Syria, the issues that arise from displacement and risks of statelessness are numerous and dire. While after 12 years of war the government of Syria has become increasingly reintegrated into the Arab regional fold, Northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold, remains isolated.

Christine Bustany, senior lecturer of international law who directs Fletcher’s International Law Practicum, saw that the problems and the circumstances children face there needed more attention. Bustany has studied and worked on the Middle East for years; however, as she looked to the situation in Northwest Syria, she understood that the story was different. In partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), an international humanitarian aid organization, Bustany designed a project focusing on access to nationality rights and legal identity rights.

“If you're a Syrian national who is a refugee in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, you're going to face core barriers to accessing civil registration documents, but it's going to look very different when you are displaced within your own country and living in a territory not controlled by the government of Syria,” said Bustany.

“The population in Northwest Syria is, in a sense, trapped. Children in Northwest Syria are unable to access birth registration documents, birth certificates—these core identity documents that are so vital to being able to exist—apart from getting local de facto-authority documentation, including from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). That can lead to so many other problems and risks.” Having SSG identity documentation can present serious protection risks if found by the government of Syria, or even other governments.

She and NRC saw a gap in the discussion. While there has been a lot of reporting on Northwest Syria, they observed that most of it assessed the issues through a security or geopolitical lens. Bustany thought that the plight of the nearly three million people displaced as a result of the conflict was not getting the attention that it needed.

“We were interested in highlighting what was going on in Northwest Syria from a human rights and children’s rights perspective,” said Bustany, “and using the issue of access to nationality and legal identity to highlight those core issues as well as the level of deprivations that the people, and specifically the children, are facing there as a result.”

A Humanitarian Partnership with a Human Rights Focus

Bustany led students in the International Law Practicum, a rigorous course wherein students engage in human rights related work under her supervision with outside clients or partner organizations, in an investigation of these issues in partnership with NRC. The practicum and NRC formed a complementary relationship; NRC provided critical expertise and information concerning accessing civil registration and identity documents among displaced populations.

“Because we have a more human rights approach, we can highlight some of the issues in a different way,” said Bustany. “That started our conversation with NRC on how we can partner and use the resources of the Fletcher’s International Law Practicum to contribute to bringing to light these issues that aren’t being focused on at all.”

Students in the practicum conducted a thorough desk review, examining the substantive laws—international, regional, and Syrian—related to right to nationality and right to birth registration. Additionally, they studied the sociopolitical and historical context in which these laws function.

“If you just learn about the laws divorced from the sociopolitical context, it's not going to mean so much,” said Bustany. “I think one thing that's wonderful about working at Fletcher is that half of my students on this project have a law background, and half have an international affairs background or have worked in foreign ministries or in humanitarian aid; and many come equipped with multiple languages. This interdisciplinary background is important for being able to engage in this type of research and documentation.”

After completing their background research, members of the practicum conducted remote key informant interviews with sources in the region who provide direct legal assistance, aid, policy work, or are working as international researchers. Students also connected with sources who provided several anonymized case studies of individual women with undocumented children to gain a deeper understanding of access to nationality and legal identity issues and their impacts, particularly on women and their children in Northwest Syria.

Recommendations for Change

Through their research, the team identified the impacts of lacking identity documentation and the risks of statelessness on this population. As a result of children’s inability to access their rights to nationality and birth registration, they experience “a slew of deprivations of their basic rights and entitlements, including,” the report’s executive summary notes, “not being able to access healthcare, humanitarian aid, education, and travel outside the area, even to reunite with their family.”

Moreover, birth registration and identity documents are not only critical for children to establish their relationship to their parents, to enroll in school, and to access other basic rights, but also for safeguarding their nationality claims. The paper also finds that not having identity documents can result in these hundreds of thousands of children in Northwest Syria in the longer term not just being vulnerable to statelessness but becoming legally stateless—essentially denied “the right to have rights.” 

The group’s report, Children on the Margins, includes three key recommendations to address these core human rights violations: changing Syria’s gender discriminatory nationality law to allow Syrian women to pass their Syrian nationality to their children—this would address many of the barriers to accessing citizenship for children’s whose fathers have died, disappeared, or are imprisoned; simplifying the civil registration process by, for example, eliminating the marriage registration requirement for registering children’s births; and ensuring that people who do possess identity documents issued by the local de facto authorities, like SSG, in Northwest Syria do not have that understood as affiliation or endorsement of a non-state armed group, instead allowing such documentation to be used as prima facie evidence of the occurrence of vital events.

The report has been disseminated to governments, embassies, and United Nations and non-governmental organizations working in the region. This semester, members of the practicum will conduct follow-up, looking at the report and assessing opportunities for continued advocacy.

Read more about Fletcher’s international legal studies field of study.

The student team who conducted research and drafting for the report included Khulood Fahim F22, Shuchi Purohit F22, Amal Rass F22, Gaurav Redhal F22, Michael Vandergriff F22, Alex Avaneszadeh F23, Zaina Basha Masri F24, Samata Sharma Gelal F24, Shahzel Najam F23, Padmini Subhashree F23.