Europeâ€™s refugee crisis is threatening to compound a hidden problem of statelessness, with experts warning that growing numbers of children are part of an emerging â€œstateless generationâ€.
Gender-biased nationality laws in Syria combined with ineffective legal safeguards in the EU states mean that many children born to Syrian refugees in Europe are at high risk of becoming stateless â€“ a wretched condition of marginalisation that affects 10 million people worldwide.
Under Syrian law, only men can pass citizenship on to their children. The UN estimates that 25% of Syrian refugee households are fatherless.
â€œA lot of those who are resettled to Europe are women whose husband or partner was killed or lost and are being resettled with their kids or are pregnant at the time, so that is becoming a bigger problem,â€ said Zahra Albarazi of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, based in the Netherlands.
Sanaa* is a 35-year-old single mother who gave birth to her daughter, Siba*, in Berlin last year. â€œI went to the Syrian embassy and explained my situation but they said they cannot give Siba a passport because the father should be Syrian, and the father and mother married,â€ Sanaa said.
Germany, in common with the rest of Europe, does not automatically grant citizenship to children born there. This means Siba does not have citizenship of any country.
Under international treaties including the UN convention on the rights of the child, governments are obliged to grant nationality to any child born on their soil who would otherwise be stateless. But few EU countries have adopted this principle into domestic law and those that have consistently fail to implement it.
The UNHCR refugee agency estimates that at least 680,000 people in Europe are without citizenship of any country, although experts say the true figure is likely to be far higher because stateless people are hard to count.
The statelessness problem is particularly bad in south-east Asia: in Myanmar alone the UN estimates there are more than 810,000 stateless people. But the situation in Europe is about to get much worse as a result of the unprecedented migration.
Up until now, groups such as the Roma and Russian-speaking people from the Baltics have been most affected, although the UN blames statelessness on a â€œbewildering array of causesâ€, with people from a wide range of backgrounds finding they are not legally entitled to citizenship of any country.
No research has been done into the scale of statelessness among the children of Syrian refugees in Europe, but it is thought that many are likely to be in the same position as Siba.
Statelessness in Europe can pose huge problems. Experts say many parents are unaware that their children are stateless. Often the children realise they do not have legal citizenship only when they reach adulthood and find they cannot legally work, marry, own property, vote or even graduate from school.
A UNHCR report released this month says statelessness can prevent children from â€œleading productive and fulfilling livesâ€ and takes a â€œdevastating psychological tollâ€ on them and their families. The report quotes one Syrian refugee father saying: â€œIf they donâ€™t have a birth certificate, itâ€™s like they donâ€™t exist.â€
In the countries bordering Syria that are taking in the majority of refugees, statelessness is already a major concern.
The UN says more than 30,000 babies born to Syrian refugees in Lebanon are at risk of statelessness. And research by Refugees International (RI) this year found that many of the 60,000 children born to Syrian refugees in Turkey since 2011 could be in the same position.
In these countries, the risk of statelessness is partly due to refugees being unable to properly register births. But children conceived through rape, as well as those born to underage Syrian girls illegally married to men in the host countries, may be at particular risk.
â€œThe scale of sexual violence both inside Syria and [against] refugees is difficult to quantify, but appears quite high,â€ said Daryl Grisgraber, from RI. â€œSo I think these numbers are probably higher than we are even guessing at right now. In addition, there are fathers who are dead, in detention in Syria, or who have simply disappeared, and so canâ€™t be verified for the purpose of birth registration in a host country.â€
Statelessness is also a serious concern for couples who donâ€™t have the documents they need to prove their own legal status.
Rama and Rashed fled Syria separately and met in Turkey. Their son, Sayed, was born in Antakya, just a few miles from the Syrian border.
Because they wed in an informal ceremony in Turkey, they do not have the legal documents to prove they are married, and Rashed is not named on his sonâ€™s birth certificate. â€œWho is he? Whatâ€™s his nationality?â€ he asked hopelessly, cradling his young son in his lap. Without legal status, they fear the child will not be able to attend school.
In Berlin, the authorities treated Sanaa with scepticism when she was unable to name Sibaâ€™s father, questioning the new mother about her sexual history.
Rather than acknowledging her statelessness, they have given Siba travel documents that identify her as a Syrian refugee. But according to Syrian law, she has no right to Syrian nationality.
â€œRight now the issue of statelessness is clouded by the fact that these people are in the asylum system,â€ said Karel Hendriks of the Amsterdam-based refugee support organisation ASKV. â€œThe problem will emerge in a few years, when hopefully the war eases off but also governments start to decide that people are able to return. Then we will have cases of people whose residence permits will not be extended but, because they are stateless, cannot be sent back.â€
According to the UN, a stateless child is born every 10 minutes somewhere in the world. The report adds that this is particularly startling â€œgiven how robust the international human rights framework is when it comes to protecting childrenâ€™s rights, including the right of every child to nationalityâ€.
Inge Sturkenboom, a protection officer specialising in statelessness at the UNHCR, said it was more important than ever that EU governments met their obligations under international treaties to protect children from statelessness. â€œWhat we need to see is the implementation of those conventions through nationality legislation, but then also having that legislation applied to the cases of children that should be able to benefit from them.â€
In Jordan and Turkey the authorities are making moves to improve the registration of refugee births. But even when every effort is made to do so, if children fall short of Syrian citizenship requirements, they will be left in limbo unless governments accept their responsibility to identify children born stateless and grant them nationality.
Abdoulla and Marah live in the same apartment block as Rama and Rashed. Like their neighbours, they married informally in Turkey. Marah is heavily pregnant and one day recently the four parents debated the best course of action to give their children legal status.
Marah was so concerned about her childâ€™s statelessness she was considering returning to Syria to give birth and register the baby there. But the others argued she would end up stuck in the war-torn country because, under Syrian law, a woman cannot bring her child out of the country without the fatherâ€™s permission. Abdoulla could not go with her because he would face arrest for defecting from the Syrian army.
â€œI would have preferred not to have a baby,â€ said Marah, welling up with tears.
That they could not agree on the best course of action points to how complex the situation is. The Syrian conflict has upended legal and social conventions, leaving children in legal limbo and their parents unsure of their rights.
Sanaa said being a single mother would have been impossible in Syria because of social stigma. She hopes that she and her daughter will eventually be able to become German citizens, although there is no guarantee that their application will be accepted.
â€œTo study here, to live here, to have the freedom to have her life,â€ Sanaa said of the benefits for her daughter of growing up in Germany. But she added: â€œI think in the future, she will wonder why she doesnâ€™t have Syrian nationality.â€
* Names have been changed
This article was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation â€“ United States. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation or its directors, employees or representatives.