The large number of unregistered marriages among Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries is jeopardizing women’s rights and the future prospects of thousands of children.
A 2016 survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found that more than half did not have legal documentation of their marriage, either because they had lost documents when fleeing Syria or because they married without going through the official registration process.
In Syria, many couples are married by a sheik without going through the legal process to obtain an official marriage registration document from the government, and many couples simply continue the practice upon arrival in a neighbouring country.
Interviews by the International Human Rights Clinic and NRC in October 2015 with 51 married refugee couples in northern Jordan found that about half of the couples had not formally registered their marriage in either Syria or Jordan. The NRC also found that in Lebanon, out of 1,706 refugees surveyed who had been married in Lebanon, only 206 had obtained an official marriage certificate and even fewer followed through on registering their marriages with the Lebanese government.
A report on the issue of unregistered marriages by the Jordan-based legal aid organization Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development explained that many couples simply did not understand the importance of registering their marriages: ‘In Syria, the official document did not hold much weight, but now that they are in Jordan families do not have documents to prove they are married. Without this document, there is no way to affix kinship to the children as per Jordanian law and thus their children are believed to be conceived out of wedlock.’
In other cases, couples wanted to register their marriages but found the legal requirements in the host country too onerous, especially couples who had lost other documents when they fled Syria. In Jordan, for instance, registering a marriage requires couples to get permission from the Ministry of the Interior and to pay court fees ranging from 25 to 110 Jordanian dinars (about $35 to $110). For couples who had left formal refugee camps without receiving official permission, getting permission from the Ministry of Interior is particularly difficult. And couples trying to legalize informal marriages can face a fine of 1,000 dinars ($1,400).
In Lebanon, couples need to have a marriage contract ‘signed and stamped by the relevant religious authority’ in order to get a marriage certificate issued by the local government, and then must register the marriage certificate with the local registry office and Foreigners’ Registry. In many cases, couples do not take the required steps either out of ignorance of the law or out of fear of the authorities. For instance, to register their marriage at the Foreigners’ Registry, couples must show that they have legal residency status in Lebanon. However, because of costs and procedural issues, many refugees living in Lebanon do not have this status.
In Turkey, some refugees have been unable to register their marriages because Turkish law requires proof from the couple’s country of origin that both partners were single – unlike in Syria, it is illegal for a man to take multiple wives. According to a report by al-Araby al-Jadeed media outlet in conjunction with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, Syrian authorities often refuse to grant the required documents to people who have escaped conscription into the army or who are part of the opposition and deemed to be ‘terrorists’.
Whatever the reason for failing to register the marriage, it can have serious consequences for couples and their children.
For one thing, having official documentation of a marriage gives some legal protection to both partners – but especially to women – in the event of a divorce or property issues if the husband dies. In many cases, if the husband of a woman with an unregistered marriage decides to divorce or abandon her, she is left without legal recourse.
In Turkey, the al-Araby al-Jadeed report spoke to a woman whose husband had decided to divorce her after they were unable to register the marriage. She lost her dowry and the compensation she might have otherwise been entitled to and ended up on the street. Another Syrian woman’s Turkish husband died with the marriage unregistered, and she was unable to claim citizenship for herself or their two children as a result.
Having an unregistered marriage can also jeopardize the ability of the couple and their children to travel as a family unit for resettlement in a third country, in Europe or elsewhere, as they may not be able to prove the family relationship.
Perhaps most importantly, the lack of a marriage certificate in many cases prevents couples from registering the births of their children, which can mean they are blocked from accessing services, registering in school and, in the long run, leaving the country with their parents either for resettlement or to return to Syria. UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, estimates that as many as 30 per cent of Syrian refugee children born in Jordan lack birth certificates; and the NRC found over 80 per cent of Syrian refugee children under five in Lebanon were not included in the official family booklet.
‘In the future, if Syrian children remain unregistered, there is a risk that they will become stateless,’ the International Human Rights Clinic and NRC report noted. ‘A large number of families worried about being unable to take an unregistered child back to Syria because they could not prove the child’s identity, nationality or relationship to the family,’
In some cases, parents with unregistered marriages, aware of the likely future issues for their children if their births are not legally registered, have resorted to fraud. For instance, some women in Lebanon told the NRC that they had borrowed relatives’ identification documents when giving birth at a hospital in order to make sure the child’s birth could be registered.
‘This could have serious consequences at a later stage for both mother and child,’ the council noted. ‘The real parents of a baby whose birth is recorded with false documents cannot register their child without taking risks, and the fraudulent use of identity documents could lead to criminal sanctions if discovered.’