Syria's refugee children have captured the attention-and hearts-of people worldwide through the anguish they are suffering by no fault of their own. Images of a drowned toddler whose body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey earlier this month, compounded by reports today of yet another young victim meeting the same fate, will not be easily erased from the consciousness of the international community.
As more than four million Syrian refugees-roughly half of them children-try to rebuild their lives in other countries, a new subtext is emerging. The United Nations is pointing to the serious problem of statelessness, which it says most acutely affects Syria's refugee children. According to reports published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR for short), many of Syria's refugee families leave their country with children whom they have never been able to register in Syria. In essence, the children are without statehood because they have no documentation to prove their parentage and birth country. Although birth registration is, by international law, the right of any child, Syrian refugee children are oftentimes without this safeguard. When their families enter other countries as refugees, the absence of this documentation can make it more difficult to seek asylum, much less citizenship. And what of those children born in countries where their parents have sought asylum? The laws vary by country, making it all the more difficult for refugee families to navigate through the requirements for eventual citizenship for their children.
While organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) work in tandem to provide humanitarian aid, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are far more interested in crossing borders-some even risking doing so illegally-that will get them to more economically advanced countries that provide jobs for adults, housing for families and education for children. For many, citizenship in their adopted homeland is a goal.
The children of these families without birth registrations are particularly vulnerable. UNICEF points out that birth registration provides proof of a child's age, which, in turn, is critical for ensuring access to refugee protection as well as the processing of applications for citizenship.
The European Commission for EU nations is pushing for its members to take in 120,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. According to members of the European Parliament, only four percent of Syrian refugees are currently in Europe, mostly seeking refuge in Germany and other northern countries such as Sweden where they either have family members or friends who have already resettled in those nations. Sweden, which has welcomed Syrian refugees through broad provisions designed to ease the transition from chaos to calm, has recently enacted new laws making it easier for stateless children to eventually acquire Swedish citizenship.
Other European countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, have just announced initiatives to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed to seek asylum. The UK plans to receive up to 20, 000 additional Syrian refugees over the next five years, adding to roughly 5,000 who have already received asylum since 2011. France, where an estimated 9,000 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum while others now wait in makeshift camps until their paperwork is processed, is poised to accept an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. Birth registrations for the Syrian refugee children granted asylum in these countries may become indispensable on any path to citizenship.
EU officials say that countries neighboring Syria, such as Turkey, have accommodated the vast majority of Syrian refugees since the Syrian conflict began nearly five years ago. According to Turkish officials, Turkey has been a stopping off point for roughly two million Syrian refugees-more than half of whom are children. While some Turkish officials see granting citizenship to Syrian adult refugees as a way to increase the nation's labor force, others point out that granting citizenship to Syrian refugee children means that the Turkish government will largely be responsible for them.
Thousands of Syrian refugees with children have resettled in Gulf Arab nations where citizenship is not an option. Instead, they are classified as "guests" and receive either visitor or work visas—which can be revoked at any time. Published reports say that some families are postponing having additional children until they can migrate to Europe to join other family members who have already resettled there.
Thousands more of Syria's refugees-families that include young children-seek asylum in countries that include Canada and the United States. The Canadian government just announced its plans to accelerate processing of applications for asylum from Syrian refugees. The United States, recently announcing its own plans to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the country, has launched a new campaign encouraging immigrants now living in the U.S. to seek formal citizenship. How either country will address the statelessness of Syrian children refugees may likely be handled on a case-by-case basis.
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