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Risk and Reward: Legal Identity Documentation in the Syrian Civil War

During the Syrian civil war, the task of registering and documenting life-cycle events and property transactions has been fulfilled not only by the Syrian state but by a range of other actors.

This article is based on a longer report on the issue of legal identity documentation in the Syrian civil war which can be accessed here.

Anthropologist Stephen Lubkemann’s famously said that, “War is not all terror all the time.” This is particularly true in the context of Syria’s 10-year-long civil war, where life has not paused: children continue to be born, people marry, die, divorce, and continue to buy and sell property. The registration of life-cycle and property events is normally considered the sole purview of the state. However, during the Syrian civil war, the task of registering and documenting life-cycle events and property transactions has been fulfilled not only by the Syrian state but by a range of other actors. These include the Islamic State, the Syrian Interim Government/Syrian National Coalition, Hayat Tahrir al-Shams Salvation Government, the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, and even Turkey in the northern Euphrates Shield zone.

Possession of non-state issued documentation has certain benefits for individuals. Within the territory controlled by different groups, non-state issued documents can enable people to access humanitarian aid (which often cannot occur without documents attesting to a person’s residence or number of family members), local justice mechanisms, healthcare, and education; to ensure freedom of movement through internal checkpoints; and to conduct trade or real estate transactions. However, possessing non–state-issued documentation also comes with substantial risks, most frequently because the Syrian regime takes non-state issued documents as evidence that people are traitors or supporters of the opposition. As a humanitarian worker in Syria suggested, “We have not found any other conflict where the risk of retribution linked to an identity document is so pervasive.”

These machinations—over the production of documents by state and entities vying to become states—has disproportionately affected Syrian women, particularly around access to parental, inheritance, and property rights. The situation has also given rise to a thriving underground industry of brokers that have emerged in response to demand for fraudulent documents as well as official state documents to be issued in absentia. 

The gendered impact of legal identity documentation

Even before the civil war, a woman’s registered legal identity in Syria was linked to that of her husband or father. As a result, the gendered impact around access to and/or loss of legal identity documentation is difficult to overstate. The absence of official marriage registration or a death certificate for her husband critically affects a woman’s ability to exercise various other cascading rights, particularly in relation to her parental, inheritance, and property rights. For example, since the onset of the civil war there has been a substantial rise in the number of urfi (customary) marriages. If a marriage is not officially registered it can be difficult for widows, divorcees, and women whose husbands are missing or deceased to register the birth of a child because greater legal burdens are placed on mothers to establish paternity of their children. This means that children are at risk of not being recognized as Syrian nationals and, therefore, stateless. The same women and children also become vulnerable to trafficking, child labour, child marriage, and illegal adoption. Another consequence of unregistered urfi marriages is that because these marriages are not legally recognized by the Syrian state, husbands face no restrictions or prohibitions on divorcing or abandoning their wives. 

Housing, land and property rights

Without official documentation of their marriage, women also run the risk of being unable to claim property they are entitled to. In many Syrian families, men are the registered owners of property. This means that for Syrian women whose husbands have been killed, disappeared, displaced, or conscripted into the military, lack of identity documentation or marriage certificates can mean women are at risk of losing or being unable to inherit their properties. Similarly, children whose births have not been properly registered—or whose parents’ marriage is not registered—may not be eligible to inherit property they are entitled to.

Displacement caused by the war has also posed a significant challenge to property record registration. In government-held areas, the Syrian government exploits displacement to seize properties owned by displaced persons for its own purposes and to punish those it perceives as opposed to it. In areas outside of government control, large rates of displacement have resulted in absentee property laws, which allow the governing authority to take properties that have been vacant for a certain period of time and give them to others. This practice has reportedly been used by the Salvation Government in Idlib and by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. This creates additional property-related disputes, as people who may have gone to Turkey temporarily, for example, can return to find that their properties have been taken over by others.

Document brokers

Document brokers are an emerging type of war profiteer, accruing substantial wealth and social influence as a result of their ability to provide vital life-cycle documents to Syrians in need. Document brokers are generally men who by virtue of their family or employment situation have connections at Syrian state-run civil registry offices. Importantly, these individuals also have the ability to travel through checkpoints between state and opposition-held territory in order to access and deliver the documents they sell and profit from.

The type of documents brokers supply runs the gamut from completely counterfeit all the way through to official state-issued documents. For example, utilizing a broker to have a birth or death registered with the state can cost upwards of $500. Connections with officials or security services can minimize some of these costs, but the reality is that for most Syrians, they remain prohibitively expensive. As an alternative, many Syrians opt for cheaper items on a broker’s menu. This could include having a document with a completely false identity or requisitioning someone else’s identity. Additionally, even if an official state-issued document is provided by a broker, there are no guarantees for the purchaser that the documents themselves are not forged. This puts Syrians at risk of arrest for possessing fake documents.

A ticking time-bomb

As early as 2015, the UN’s Melissa Fleming outlined that the issue of legal identity documentation is a “ticking time bomb” that has the ability to render a generation of Syrians stateless and unable to access even basic legal rights. In order to defuse this powder keg, the politics of non-state-issued identity documents should be uncoupled from their practical use. Rather than recognizing or legitimating the issuing authority, external states and policy actors should advocate that the Syrian government recognize prima facie the specific event details contained in documents issued by non-state actors. Admittedly, this will be challenging, given that the Syrian regime has shown itself to be particularly immune to external pressure. However, an incentive of self-interest could be leveraged in that it would be detrimental for the Syrian state to leave many thousands (if not millions) of its inhabitants undocumented. Recognizing the details contained in non–state-issued documentation would ensure that generations of Syrians have access to documentary evidence of life-cycle events and minimize the domino effects caused by lack of documentation. In turn, this would reduce the burden placed on the Syrian state’s resources. A first step to doing this would be for external states and the Syrian government to facilitate the recognition of unofficial urfi documents issued by customary or religious leaders and documents issued by medical personnel, rather than those issued by political or military wings of non-state actors. These types of documents could serve, at a minimum, as evidence of key facts, such as identity, biodata, vital events, and family composition and could facilitate the incorporation of these events into the state-run civil registry system or assist with resettlement claims in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.


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