Most of us take for granted that it is the country of our birth or citizenship which issues us with legal identity documents. These include written records of births, deaths and marriages that can be used to access other documents and services such as a passport, education, healthcare, inheritance and social security.

Currently, however, millions of people live in areas controlled by non-state actors or in places not fully recognised as states. Some of the most well-known examples are places like Taiwan, Palestine and Western Sahara.

Speaking about the situation in Syria in 2015, the UN’s Melissa Fleming said that the issue of legal identity documentation is a “ticking time bomb” that has the ability to render a generation of Syrians stateless and unable to access even basic legal rights.

The Syrian revolution in 2011 and subsequent civil war greatly affected people’s ability to access legal identity documentation. (Artwork: Hisham Rifai)

This is because over the last 13 years of the Syrian civil war, millions of people have been unable to access legal identity documents from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Consequently, other actors, with varying degrees of international recognition and legitimacy, have provided this service instead. These include the main Syrian opposition movement, also known as the Syrian Interim Government.

Around 2012, the Interim Government was recognised by over 20 states, including the US, the UK, and the European Union, as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people”. However, having been unable to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian opposition has become a curious entity that exists somewhere in- between a fully recognised state and an illegitimate non-state actor.

Yaser al-Farhan, lawyer and human rights activist (Photo: Darrian Traynor)

“It is the right of every human to have civil documents,” said Yaser al-Farhan, a lawyer and human rights activist originally from al-Hasakah. “The Syrian Interim Government issued documents because a huge need existed, and the Syrian regime refused to respond to the problem.” However, the Syrian Interim Government’s status has meant that the documents it has issued to millions of Syrians have placed them in an in-between situation – which comes with some benefits, but also many risks.

As one Syrian put it, “We know the documents [issued by the Syrian Interim Government] are not 100% legitimate, but maybe they are, like, 70% legit. They give us space to breathe, at least.”

Between 2014 and 2019, around 42 civil registry offices were set up by the Syrian Interim Government in the north and south of the country. During this time, they issued over 330,000 legal identity documents to people residing in these areas.

For over five years the north and south of Syria were under the control of the Syrian Interim Government. (Artwork: Hisham Rifai)

One common use of these documents was to allow children in opposition-controlled areas to enrol in school. However, this led to a problem: when these students graduated from high school, they were unable to access any universities, because the graduation certificates issued by these Syrian opposition-controlled schools were not recognised by the Syrian state or other schools abroad.

Consequently, work was undertaken by the Ministry of Education at the Syrian Interim Government to lobby different states to recognise these high school diplomas. While the documents themselves were never fully recognised, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and France agreed to a workaround in 2015, whereby they would recognise the exams undertaken by students in order to issue them with scholarships to study abroad.

The Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government also negotiated that some students could graduate with baccalaureates issued from schools in Libya. Despite being a pariah state in its own right, the logic was that these documents issued by a recognised state would at least enable Syrian students some access to tertiary education.

Explaining the rationale for this decision-making, Husam al-Shehne, a judge who worked for the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Education said:

“Students who do not go to university will go and fight in battle. If they don’t go to school, they will be victims.”

Husam al-Shehne, a judge in the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Education (Artwork: Hisham Rifai)

But even within areas of Syria controlled by the Assad government, there are potentially thousands of students who should be at school but are not, because they are afraid to access official state documentation. A Syrian working with the UN said, “Most of the children I have met in field visits are out of school due to their lack of registration.”

The same UN worker explained that, “Many parents lie. I see families who say that the father is missing, or the mother says that she got married to someone during the siege of Eastern Ghouta and now she doesn’t know whether he is alive or dead – so how can she prove the marriage? Most of the time, she says this because she is afraid, and she doesn’t want to say where the man is or what he is doing.”

Likewise, a Syrian man, now living in Idlib, said that in order to get his wife and son a Syrian government-issued family booklet, he had to be reported as dead or missing because he was wanted by the Syrian government. He added,

“Frankly, we are in an unstable country, so everything can be done with money. So we paid around USD 1400 for the family booklet.”

Syrian law usually requires witnesses to register such events like the birth of their son. However, when asked whether his wife needed to have any witnesses, he replied, “No – money was the best witness!”

There are reports that strategic checkpoints have been set up by the Syrian government around civil registry centres that require people to show their identity documents as a prerequisite for entry. According to a journalist from Eastern Ghouta, “The regime doesn’t recognise any of these documents. Far from it – people with these papers may be detained or tortured, because they’re regarded as proof of being with the opposition. So people simply won’t carry them. I have a relative whose wife evacuated Eastern Ghouta in 2017 with their son; rather than use their Syrian Interim Government-issued family booklet, she hid their documents and re-registered herself as the wife of a disappeared person. This meant reissuing everything.”

Another place where people can get caught in limbo is their ability to access and use travel documents.

Legal identity documents issued by non-state actors, including the Syrian Interim Government, can become a security risk. (Artwork: Hisham Rifai)

Around 2014, the six-year validity of Noura’s Syrian passport was about to expire. As a Syrian activist, she was blacklisted by the Syrian government. This made it difficult for her to apply for a new passport. Instead, the Syrian Interim Government’s embassy in Istanbul put a sticker in her Syrian government-issued passport that extended its validity for a further 6 years. With this new in-between passport – a passport issued by the Syrian government but renewed by its opponent, the Syrian Interim Government – Noura was able to travel both to the US and to Germany.

However, when the Syrian opposition fell out of favour with its international backers a few years later, passports like Noura’s were confiscated by European and US border authorities on the grounds that they had been forged. This has left her stuck. Politically, she does not support the Syrian government or want to pay them large sums of money to reissue her documents. Yet, without a Syrian-state issued passport, travelling is impossible for people like Noura.

The many Syrian lawyers, judges, bureaucrats and civil servants that helped set up, administer and oversee the Syrian Interim Government’s civil registry system undoubtedly had humanitarian intentions for the program.

As Tarek al-Kurdi, a lawyer originally from Homs who helped set up and run the system said, “Before we speak about laws and rights, we first need to know: who are these people?”

Tarek and his colleagues wanted Syrian citizens to have access to their basic rights, such as a passport, education, and a record of the birth of a child or a marriage. However, as long as actors like the Syrian Interim Government remain somewhere in between legitimate and unrecognised, the documents they issue to people also exist in a grey area, and this creates a variety of unique and challenging concerns for those who hold them.

Tarek al-Kurdi, Syrian lawyer (Photo: Darrian Traynor)

There also remains the problem identified by Anwar Majjani, a Syrian lawyer who managed the Interim Government’s legal identity program:

“The regime knew registry centres were important, so it systematically targeted and destroyed them… And now, unfortunately, the civil registry system and the lack of Syrians registered is something the regime does not want to talk about at all.”

Anwar Majjani, Syrian lawyer (Photo: Darrian Traynor)