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The Slow-Motion Legal Disaster Unfolding within the Refugee Crisis

A man holding a baby
A Syrian man holds a newborn child in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp in January 2013. © Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty

As refugees continue to be driven out of Syria, a legal crisis is taking shape throughout the region that parallels the humanitarian one.

Refugees leaving Syria face a bureaucratic nightmare that isn’t always readily apparent. For instance, when they depart their home countries, many leave behind their IDs, passports, and marriage and birth certificates. Then, because of lengthy and complex registration processes, some Syrians go on to marry in their host countries without proper documentation. Problems proliferate from there. Children are born “illegitimate” and divorces are legally impossible. Family, the crucial stabilizer of societies in tumult, runs the risk of breaking down.

These obstacles to marriage and birth registration, coupled with gender-discriminatory nationality laws in the region, are creating an urgent need for legal aid. This need is particularly pressing in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which are at the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis, yet haven’t ratified the 1951 Status of Refugees Convention or its 1967 Protocol.

Few countries provide legal assistance to refugees, and Jordan is no exception. Arab Renaissance for Democracy & Development–Legal Aid (ARDD) was one of the first organizations to sound the alarm on the Syrian identification crisis in Jordan. Since 2008, we have worked to legally empower refugee communities and have litigated on behalf of many refugees who otherwise did not have access to justice. When Syrian refugees started seeking refuge in Jordan, ARDD stepped in to help them overcome legal hurdles and ensure their proper registration.

We didn’t have to look far for support. Among the Syrian refugee community, ARDD found many refugees who had practiced law for decades back home. Though these refugee-lawyers cannot work legally in Jordan, they can provide much needed legal advice to fellow refugees on a volunteer basis.

To capitalize on their experience, ARDD launched the Syrian Lawyer Initiative to provide them with the skills and knowledge to navigate Jordan’s legal system. These 60 refugee-lawyers are now working with their community to build a future on solid legal ground.  

ARDD has a 24-hour hotline to facilitate legal consultation and aid. It receives up to a hundred calls a day, and its staffers can directly address more than half of callers’ needs. What’s more, following concerted and persistent advocacy by ARDD and its partners for simplified registration procedures for Syrian refugees, Jordanian authorities established civil registry departments and courts inside the country’s two main refugee camps, Azraq and Za’atari.

ARDD has facilitated the registration of thousands of marriages, divorces, and births since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Thanks to such efforts, birth registration among the Syrian refugee community has increased substantially. But more work needs to be done. In neighboring Lebanon, for instance, more than 36,000 Syrian kids have been born stateless since the beginning of the war, mostly because their parents lack proper documentation themselves, according to UNHCR.

To stop this vicious cycle, all efforts should be made to facilitate Syrian refugees’ registration and access to legal aid. With no solution to the crisis on the horizon, refugees’ legal needs are becoming increasingly urgent. Host countries and donors need to rethink their strategies to address these needs. No effort should be spared to extricate Syria’s refugees from the legal gap.

Arab Renaissance for Democracy & Development–Legal Aid is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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