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Documentary On The Stateless Kurds of Syria

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image A Syrian Kurd holding his stateless ID. Photo by John Ethan.


Written by Taghee Moas

Photo: John Ethan

Amid the violence and brutality of the Syrian authorities’ response to the country’s revolution, pre-existing human rights violations are sometimes forgotten. This is the case for the stateless Kurds of Syria. Moreover, with access for international journalists and rights groups severely restricted, several sources have incorrectly – as this article aims to demonstrate – reported that the problem of statelessness has been solved since the Revolution began. As the presidential decree to nationalize those without documentation is limited in scope and application, for many the plight continues. 

The Stateless Kurds of Syria 

‘Tell my story to the people of your country. And when you tell it, I want you to use my real name’ says our interviewee. Fully conscious of the danger this might entail, he continues, ‘you might not be able to give me an identity card, but you can give me a name, a name that I can be proud of.’ Hesitant to fulfill his request, I can only hope that reproducing its expression may serve to some measure the motivations of the speaker. 

Such is the ethical dilemma faced when documenting subjects whose very identity is considered politically dangerous. The concern to portray group identity while protecting that of the individual without distortion of culture or personality is particularly pressing in the case of my contact - anonymous, as alas he must remain. For, he is one of approximately 300,000 Kurds in Syria to have been deprived of citizenship and civic rights by the state. The use of pseudonym and pixilated representation would inappropriately replicate the repressive state policies that have long sought to replace, deform and eradicate the distinctive identity and integrity of the Kurdish community within Syria. Furthermore, a representation that must negotiate its own restrictions and obstacles is reflective of the way many stateless Kurds are forced to experience every-day life. 

Without a recognized state of their own, the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the diaspora may collectively constitute a ‘stateless nation’. For a sub-group of the Kurds in Syria, statelessness is absolute, as they are not officially recognized as citizens of any state at all. This situation arose in a context of discriminatory policies and forced Arabisation. In 1962, the then Syrian government executed an irregular, single-day census in al-Hassake – the province with the highest concentration of Kurdish inhabitants. The purported purpose of the census was to identity those who had entered Syria illegally since 1945. However, implementation was inconsistent. Many in the largely agricultural community were simply unaware that a census was taking place; others were unable – at short notice – to present documentation to substantiate claims dating back more than seventeen years. Additionally, some were suspicious of intentions behind the census and refused to hand over documentation when the outcome of doing so was unclear. 

As such, the status of individuals was determined somewhat arbitrarily, with members of the same family often recognized differently. ‘My grandfather and all his siblings’ explains our informant ‘were born in Syria. While some of his brothers and sisters kept their nationality, my grandfather and a further two brothers were working in the fields and did not attend.’ 

Almost half a century on, the impact of the census in Syria is no less significant. For, statelessness – just like nationality in Syria – is hereditary via the father. The problem is further exacerbated by the discretionary bias implicit within the stratified structure of Syria’s stateless population (see Facts and Figures: Inheritance Structure). 

Practices of inherited statelessness constitute a violation of human rights and are in direct contravention of Syria’s own nationality law, which understands a citizen to be ‘Anyone born in the country to unknown parents or to parents with unknown or no nationality.’ 

Another stateless Kurd summed up his predicament. ‘While I automatically inherited my father’s statelessness at birth, I will be unable to inherit his property when he dies. Our land has already been confiscated and handed over to Arab settlers. The Syrian government criticizes the Israelis in the South, while they do the same in the North.’ 

For this individual and his family the effects of statelessness are far-reaching. ‘Although I was lucky enough to enter the university on the whim of the college director’ he continues, ‘my studies will be worthless, as I will not get a valid degree certificate when I graduate. I won’t be able to work in the public sector or register a company in my name.’ Meanwhile, his younger brother dropped out of school when his teacher refused the presence of “animals, criminals and traitors” in the classroom.’ 

At only ten years old, the boy now works shining shoes and selling tissues or chewing gum in the public park. He explains, ‘if anyone asks where I’m from, I say Turkey. I can’t even speak Turkish, but if I speak broken Arabic they usually believe me. We take it in turns to approach somebody in the park. The others stay close by for protection, but if the police come they will all run away. If they catch us, we must hand over everything we have. Sometimes they joke and say this is “import tax” or “a present from the Turkish government”’. 

To survive he and other youngsters must work long hours and risk the dangers and exploitation in the park at night. Sometimes they try to sell things to customers at the café terraces. ‘Some waiters are nice. They understand [most are themselves poorly-paid Kurds]. But if customers complain they chase us and hit us.’ 

While the stateless Kurds have repeatedly been promised a solution, there has until recently been no remedy of, or opportunity to appeal, the results of the ’62 census. Events of the Arab Spring have brought forth further promises to rectify the situation. Following a presidential decree in March of this year, some Kurds have had their Syrian citizenship restored. Some estimate, however, that this group represents as few as 6,000 and their names may not, as yet, have been entered into the national database of citizens, allowing them to obtain a passport. For the remainder of Syria’s 300 000 stateless Kurds, the future looks as uncertain as ever.  

‘I’m pleased to have my ID card,’ says one newly nationalized Kurd. ‘But not until the process is completed will I truly trust the intentions of this action. Before my card is activated, I must have an interview, no doubt full of interrogation and intimidation, with State Security. Citizenship should not be a privilege. It is my right.’ 

Similar frustrations are evident for our first contact. ‘They feed our dreams. Every time we hear they are working on solving our problem, reviewing it and discussing it. And every time I hope the dream will come true. But now my anger is such that if I were to decide to join the protests I would kill twenty of the government’s thugs. For this country has lied to me, called me dog. They have said I must not have a passport, I must not travel, I must not open a business, I must not marry. But I won’t join the protests as I want to have a future, I want development and I want peace for my family.’ Unable to travel outside, for the moment he must continue his life as a non-citizen within. 

While Kurds distanced themselves from much of the initial popular movement of the Syrian street, patience has turned to desperation. The university student consulted above stated, ‘If there are Kurdish riots in Aleppo, I want to be among the first to take part. Since joining university three years ago, I have been detained four times. Being stateless, I am politically dangerous in the eyes of the authorities. Therefore I have nothing to lose. Maybe something bad will happen to me, I will be arrested and imprisoned. But after that maybe something good could happen; I will gain citizenship to any European country, as the torture I will receive will make me and my asylum case so much stronger.’           

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. As the internal opposition and international community condemn Assad’s repressive crackdown on popular dissent, so too should they condemn the long-term injustice of depriving civil rights to a considerable section of society. 

Facts and Figures 

There are two categories of stateless Kurds in Syria. The groups are differentiated bureaucratically and in the enjoyment of recognized human rights. 

1. Those who attempted to register in 1962 but did not have sufficient documentation became ajanib (‘foreigners’ in Arabic). These individuals are issued a special identity document confirming their lack of Syrian citizenship. They face formal restrictions in employment, further education and marriage registration. 

2. Maktoumeen (meaning ‘unrecorded’) refers to those who did not participate – through choice or other circumstances – in the census.

They may be without identity papers altogether and are subject to greater restrictions. They are not awarded a school graduation certificate and are often unable to travel outside their own province.  

Estimated breakdown 

Little exists in the way of reliable statistics on stateless Kurds within Syria, or even Kurds in general as the Syrian government does not disaggregate according to ethnicity. However, scholars repeatedly quote Kurds to represent close to 10% of Syria’s 22 million populace. A popularly cited figure records the number who became stateless in 1962 as 120,000. Meanwhile the UN estimates that there are currently approximately 300,000 stateless Kurds within the country. One calculation has the breakdown at 140,000 ajanib to 160,000 maktoumeen.


* Taghee Moas is a pseudonym of an independent journalist working in Syria. Taghee speaks Arabic and Kurmanji and has conducted field-work into the human rights situation of Kurds in North-Eastern Syria. His research has contributed to the work of several NGOs conducting research on the subject.

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