The Stateless in Lebanon: Between Shame and Shadows
The phenomenon of statelessness in Lebanon is as old as the state itself, yet the issue continues to stand out today on all levels of local and international policy. Academic, legal, and social researchers, as well as human rights activists have not shown a great interest in the issue.
The status of stateless persons differs from one country to another in accordance with its laws. This is reflected in the legal existance that stateless persons have, and the rights that they are able to exercise. In Lebanon, there are two primary categories of stateless persons: the first, referred to as “unregistered”, includes the majority of stateless persons. Its members have absolutely no legal existence before the law or the authorities. This category is in turn divided into two groups: one includes people who have ascendants in personal status registers, but whose births were not recorded on those registers; the second is made up of individuals whose ascendants do not appear in the state registry, even though most of them were present on Lebanese soil at the time the Lebanese state was established. The operative factor in the case of such ascendants is that they were not registered in the 1932 census, and therefore did not obtain Lebanese nationality.
Lebanon has no legal framework for stateless persons, nor for registering those who fall under the category of “stateless” or “unregistered”. Such individuals are born, they live, and they die with nothing to confirm their presence on Lebanese soil; state authorities likewise have nothing confirming their presence either. As a result, they do not enjoy even the most basic of human rights: the right to health care, work, protection from exploitation, collect social security, the right to public employment, freedom of movement, etc. It goes without saying that they are also deprived of political rights, including the right to participate in public life.
As for the second category of stateless persons in Lebanon, they are known as “under study”. Under this category, persons are legally recognized and enjoy some basic rights, the most important of which are legal existence as well as some civil, economic, and social rights. However, the features of this category, and their history and resolution of their status, are nonetheless subject to multiple interpretations and explanations. They remain “under study” for decades, and their numbers multiply from one generation to the next.
In 1994, the Lebanese state issued a naturalization decree en masse aimed at limiting the number of stateless individuals, by granting nationality to a number of individuals who had been deprived of it up to that time. But in reality, it covered only a small proportion of stateless individuals as compared to, for example, beneficiaries of the law who hold other nationalities.
As a result, the Lebanese state, the academic community, and civil society missed the opportunity to bring statelessness back to the table for discussion. Discussions of the issue became politicized and polarized. Demographic and sectarian balance and the bogeyman of resettlement arose again, along with other issues that always come to the fore when any attempts are made to raise the issue of nationality. Thus, the subject of statelessness or “unknown status”, as the Lebanese state has termed it, remained unknown as well for many years.
However, in recent years, a small number of civil society groups have taken direct interest in the issue of unregistered persons. The official government body concerned is the National Committee on the Status of Unregistered Lebanese Children, which includes civil society groups and representatives of various ministries, and operates under the umbrella of the Higher Council for Childhood. Its work focuses on registering children under the age of 18 who are born to Lebanese parents. They have conducted a media campaign on the need to register children and the dangers of not doing so, in addition to raising awareness and providing guidance on the procedures for registering, as well as advocating with the authorities on the status of individuals in this category, and how to resolve their cases.
It is worth noting in this regard the broad campaign about a woman’s right to transfer her nationality to her family. The Collective for Research and Training on Development–Action (CRTDA) has launched a campaign named “My Nationality Is a Right for Me and My Family”, regardless of the father’s nationality or lack thereof. It calls for the amendment of a law discriminating against women. A response to this campaign would impact a large group of stateless persons born to Lebanese mothers, but whose mothers are married to individuals who are “unregistered” or “under study.”
The first initiative in Lebanon in this field was that of the Frontiers Ruwad Association (FR), which began work on the issue in the the early 2000s. As a result of ongoing conversations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the general issue of international protection and on statelessness in particular, FR was behind the decision of the UNHCR office in Lebanon to adopt statelessness as a strategic priority in its work with government authorities. FR’s intervention and efforts in this context arose from the nature of its work, as well as the rights it has adopted and defended and the groups of people it has defended. In defense of the right of all people to a legal existence, FR had a desire to create an environment that protected and recognized every person on Lebanese soil. Also, since stateless persons were tantamount to nonexistent persons before the law and the prevailing political system, it was inevitable that FR would work for the recognition of these individuals and their rights.
What sets Frontiers Ruwad’s initiative on statelessness apart is its comprehensiveness. On one hand, it seeks legal solutions as well as comprehensive policy solutions for all stateless persons. On the other hand, it works on the level of prevention to limit statelessness, by identifying and protecting stateless individuals. At the same time, its work is naturally integrated to a great extent with all of the work done by the National Committee on the Status of Unregistered Lebanese Children, which focuses exclusively on one category of stateless persons – unregistered individuals who have family members in the Lebanese registers. The work of FR is also integrated with the work of the CRTDA, which focuses primarily on advocating for the right of Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children. FR’s interest in statelessness began when it took up the case of three sisters with Lebanese parents who had not been legally married, and whose births had not been registered. After hiring a lawyer to pursue their case in court, FR succeeded in securing the sisters’ Lebanese identities – ten years later.
In an attempt to counter the absence of academic and legal studies about statelessness in Lebanon, FR conducted the first legal study in Lebanon on the issue, by way of a survey as well as an analysis of laws, legal interpretations, advisory opinions, and administrative practices. This study provided us with knowledge of the legal and policy background of statelessness, as well as the reasons behind it and possible solutions. It also described the extent to which Lebanese legal rulings, or the implementation or interpretation of those rulings, were behind the phenomenon and the extent to which they can contribute to its prevention and resolution (2011). It demonstrated that Lebanese law includes important guarantees against statelessness, particularly in the way it has allowed for the recourse to [the principle] of tying one’s link to Lebanese soil to their right of acquiring Lebanese nationality, in cases when it appears that a child will be born without a nationality. The law also includes possibilities for addressing the vast majority of cases of statelessness in the courts. However, there are multiple discrepancies in that process, including the ways that the law is applied and interpreted, which have led to a lack of implementation on the administrative end. This was manifested for instance in a lack of awareness about the legal guarantees, for example, and the costs of bringing cases to court.
The study was followed by a roundtable in 2011 with relevant Lebanese authorities, expert international organizations and experts, as well as lawyers. It was the first time that the topic had been put forward for discussion. Cooperation developed thereafter among the various parties, and a ministerial committee was established, including the Ministries of Interior and Municipalities (the Directorate General for Personal Status and the General Directorate of General Security), Public Health, Social Affairs, Justice, Education, and Higher Education, in addition to UN organizations (UNHCR, the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UNICEF) – in addition to the Ruwwad Frontiers Association. The aim was to discuss the issue of statelessness on an ongoing basis, and to study initiatives and mechanisms aimed at preventing and ending it. Among the first outcomes of this dialogue was joint work on a national awareness campaign about the importance of registering births, the goal of which was to prevent new cases of statelessness.
In 2014, [FR] organized a series of meetings with concerned parties in a number of Lebanese provinces, and meetings with unregistered individuals in every region, in order to put an end to statelessness and the problems associated with it. On the basis of those meetings, as well as its cumulative efforts, it convened a series of dialogues with the technical staff in the ministries involved in the working committee. During these meetings, the problems with the birth registration system in Lebanon were discussed, as were suggestions and recommendations for developing and improving it with the aim of preventing cases of persons of unknown status.
In 2015, these were followed by focused meetings with smaller groups of government employees about practical mechanisms for developing and updating the system of birth registration. The goals of the meetings included: working towards developing national strategies connected to ways to prevent statelessness; putting a system in place for identifying stateless persons in Lebanon; providing stateless persons with cards that would identify them and acknowledge their existence; and, to establish a system to limit statelessness based on existing cases, particularly historical cases among them. The field study (referenced above) had made it clear that this last group of cases had strong, documented connections with Lebanon, particularly in terms of Ottoman-Lebanese ancestry and the fact that many had been born in Lebanon.
In light of the lack of qualitative and quantitative data on statelessness in Lebanon, FR undertook a preliminary field study (2012, unpublished) which was the first of its kind. It included a sample of families throughout Lebanon that included stateless persons. Its goal was to understand the characteristics and categories of stateless persons, and the reasons they are without nationalities, as well as to approximate the extent of the phenomenon. The study demonstrated that unregistered births were the most prominent reason for statelessness in Lebanon, extending to about half of the sample. The other half of cases included historical statelessness – i.e., those whose ascendants had historically not held Lebanese nationality. The study also showed that the vast majority of stateless persons were born in Lebanon or have Lebanese ascendants; about 90 percent of them were born to Lebanese mothers.
Frontiers Ruwad is working to raise the issue of statelessness in Lebanon, and put forward its vision of ending the phenomenon and addressing it in all relevant international forums – for example, by making shadow reports to United Nations bodies. It presented its most recent report about the issue in the context of a comprehensive international review before the Human Rights Council. It is also working to present legal recommendations on a number of individual cases and undertake strategic litigation, in order to understand judicial practice regarding issues of statelessness and the issues and problems it raises. The majority of cases have not yet been presented in court; and, those that were have not led to consistent judicial interpretations.
Frontiers Ruwad has also published a group of simplified educational tools for stateless persons in order to help prevent statelessness, including guides to registering marriages and births, and booklets for individuals of various legal statuses in Lebanon about how to register their births.
Initiatives and activities related to persons of unknown status other than those by Frontiers Ruwad are few but very important. While this article focuses on Frontiers Ruwad as the most comprehensive initiative, our attempt was primarily to illustrate the complementary nature of all initiatives aiming to support the Lebanese state in creating policies and mechanisms to prevent and end statelessness.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
__________ See: “Between the Shadows and Shame”, Frontiers Ruwad Association.