Legal Identity in Limbo: Civil Documentation and De Facto Authorities in Northwest Syria

About the author(s):

Sarah Adamczyk currently works as the Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) Specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Syria Response Office. Sarah has previously worked with NRC in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Ukraine and Nigeria as well as with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law and Rights and Security International (formerly Rights Watch UK).

Jessica Doumit is the Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) Research Adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Syria Response Office. She has worked with various human rights organisations and holds a J.D. from Georgetown Law with a certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies.

The consequences of displacement in Syria are becoming increasingly multi-generational, particularly in relation to legal identity, as more children are born into families with lost, damaged or destroyed documents or to families who never possessed documents in the first place. The devastating 6 February earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria has further exacerbated the humanitarian situation and led to additional waves of displacement, creating heightened vulnerabilities with legal identity, particularly those whose documents might have been destroyed or left in their homes as they fled. 

The growing practice by de facto authorities in Northwest Syria (NWS), including the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and Syrian Interim Government (SIG), in issuing their own documentation adds another layer of complexity. These authorities are ostensibly issuing civil documentation to facilitate the daily lives of those living under their control, but they are also using this as a means of legitimising themselves and establishing credibility. This situation has left many Syrians living in areas outside Government of Syria (GoS) control in limbo. While non-GoS documents may provide short-term practical benefits, particularly given the near impossibility for civilians in these areas to access GoS documentation, these documents may have little value or utility outside NWS and could create serious protection repercussions, including arbitrary arrest and detention by the GoS. 

This piece aims to briefly assess the legal identity systems under the SIG and SSG, the consequences of these documents for people living in areas controlled by these de facto authorities and the practical challenges that arise given the limited value or recognition of these documents outside non-government areas. Amidst this complex legal and political environment, it is imperative for both state and non-state actors not to discriminate against individuals based on the type of documents they possess, for humanitarian actors to ensure that documentation is not a prerequisite for assistance and for donors to continue to fund legal programs that support civil documentation. 

Background

There are numerous state and non-state actors operating in NWS and this has changed frequently over the course of the past 12 years of conflict, but this piece will focus on the GoS, SSG and SIG. The SSG is the administrative branch of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a dominant military actor operating in NWS which evolved from Al-Qaeda. Over time, and with the formation of additional administrative structures and laws, the SSG has become more involved in legal administration, including the issuance of civil documentation to those living under their areas of control. The Turkish-backed SIG was established in 2013 by the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Armed Forces, a coalitionof opposition forces. Like the SSG, the SIG became increasingly involved and organised in administrative affairs over its area of control, including civil registration. 

Civil Documentation under the GoS

Although the SSG and SIG have issued their own civil documentation, Syrians generally still have a strong preference for GoS documentation due to its international credibility and recognition. Under the GoS, the key legal framework governing civil documentation and registration is the Civil Status Law (CSL), most recently amended in March 2021. The CSL provides rules and procedures for Syrians both domestically and abroad on the registration of life events as well as the issuance of certified documents. Key documents under the GoS include the identity card, passport, individual and family civil status extracts, and the family booklet (for more on these documents, see here). 

Over the course of the conflict, some procedural changes to civil documentation have been made. Previously, individuals had to go to the civil registry based in their specific place of origin to obtain documents, but the revised CSL creates a concept of a “Single Syrian Registry” where individuals can go to any civil registry in Syria to record their events through a connected electronic system. Additionally, the GoS has passed amnesty decrees to waive late fees on registration. While the “Single Syrian Registry” and fee waivers notionally offers more flexibility for Syrians to obtain civil documentation, the loss or lack of documents, transportation costs and/or security concerns are still significant barriers that prevent individuals from going to a GoS civil registry and updating their documentation or registering life events. 

Civil Documentation under the SSG

The SSG issues documents such as family cards, civil status statements and identity cards. Respondents from an INGO survey noted that many of the SSG’s civil registry institutions and procedures are similar to the GoS. A key development was in September 2022, when the SSG began a new system of issuing personal identity cards. It seems likely that issuing ID cards is part of the SSG’s efforts to legitimise themselves as they assert that the ID cards are per “international standards and are fully Syrian affiliated.” In December 2022, the local authorities began to link the ID card to access to basic services, including obtaining salaries and applying for school exams. This inevitably places a greater practical need for those living in these areas to apply for SSG-issued documentation so they can exercise their maximum available rights and opportunities, even where they may be uncertain how the SSG might use their information. 

Civil Documentation under the SIG

The SIG established its own civil registry in 2015, and like the SSG, the SIG’s registration practice largely mirrors the GoS. The SIG issues documents including family booklets, identity cards, and birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates, though some living in certain areas do not have access to documents like the family booklet. Respondents to an INGO survey stated that the identity card and the family booklet or statement were the most relevant for accessing services and traveling within SIG areas. Respondents in SIG areas noted that possessing non-SIG documents, including those by the GoS or ISIS, posed a risk of being questioned and arrested by the SIG. 

Challenges

Syria is bound to respect a range of rights relating to legal identity and civil documentation. For example, the right for children to be registered and have a nationality is an internationally protected right and paves the way for the enjoyment of many other rights, including education and freedom of movement. Yet, more than a decade of conflict has contributed to a deprivation of these rights and the emergence of non-GoS documents presents a great dilemma for Syrians living in non-GoS areas. While SSG or SIG documents may be practically beneficial for those living under their de facto control, there are significant repercussions to obtaining such documents. Although those documents can be used internally, they cannot be used to enter GoS areas or travel internationally as they are not recognised. Secondly, presenting such documents in GoS areas can lead to serious security consequences as the GoS may interpret these documents as a sign of political support for the SSG/SIG. 

There are also obstacles to accessing GoS documents for those living in non-GoS areas. In a 2021-2022 household survey of both SSG and SIG areas, 68 percent of respondents said there were barriers to obtaining GoS documents, the primary being security concerns, particularly for men who are of conscription age. Additionally, those coming from non-government areas, particularly SSG areas, may face detention and arrest upon arrival. This security concern also applies to those coming from GoS areas to non-GoS areas, as the HTS has engaged in retaliatory practices against those affiliated with the GoS. Respondents to the same survey also expressed logistical barriers such as registration fees and transportation costs to GoS civil registries. This general lack of access to GoS documentation in non-state controlled areas means that the alternative to non-GoS documents would be no documents whatsoever, leaving individuals undocumented and with no proof of their existence.

There are unique challenges for more vulnerable groups, including women. Prior to the conflict, the men of the household would usually handle civil registration matters, but with the onset of the conflict, many more women have become head of their households and have had to sort these issues. Some fees are too high for women to cover alone without the support of a male breadwinner and many women lack the experience of applying for such documentation. 

Conclusion

For those living in non-GoS areas, obtaining and/or renewing their GoS documentation presents severe challenges amid the myriad of political actors and security concerns. Furthermore, particularly after the earthquake and its response, more non-immediate needs like civil documentation may be overlooked. Yet, civil documentation is key to accessing services such as humanitarian aid, medical care, education and ensuring durable solutions by preventing statelessness. A lack of documentation leads to negative coping mechanisms such as forged documentation, bribing officials and hiring intermediaries to handle the matter which adds further costs and risks. It also restricts freedom of movement and affects housing, land and property rights, particularly for women, if property ownership documents are not registered properly. 

Rather than seeing this issue as black and white, state versus non-state, or legal documents versus illegal documents, all actors should ideally be willing to at least recognise the details contained in civil document regardless of which authority issued it, and not perceive these documents as prima facie evidence of affiliation with a specific group. This is particularly relevant when the SSG and SIG necessitate many individuals and families to acquire these documents to receive educational, health or other benefits. The GoS should continue to pass measures that waive fees for documents and grant more flexibility in obtaining documents, including by simplifying evidentiary requirements. Humanitarian and development actors should continue to scale up legal assistance services to increase the protection environment on legal identity issues. Donors must continue funding legal assistance programs that increase protection in preparation of refugees’ access to durable solutions.

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