Syrian refugee Yasmine Khalaf lies next to her day-old daughter Israa in a Lebanese hospital, worrying that her tiny newborn risks life without a legal identity.
Israa, sleeping swaddled in a fluffy pink blanket, is one of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees born in Lebanon who are threatened with statelessness because of the hurdles to registering their births.
UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that 70 percent of the 42,000 refugee children born in Lebanon since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011 do not have birth certificates.
“Effectively, these babies don’t exist,” an official working with refugees in the northern city of Tripoli said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Without documentation, they don’t have the right do go to hospitals or get education. They don’t have any rights,” she said.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon can register newborns at their embassy in Beirut, but many fear doing so because they are from opposition areas or have fled military service or arrest.
The children can be registered with Lebanese authorities, but the process is complex and made more difficult by the realities of fleeing during wartime.
“There are these obstacles all the way through the process,” said Ana Pollard, a UNHCR official focused on statelessness.
Parents must obtain a birth notification from the medic who delivered their child, and then navigate several stages of bureaucracy.
They must have documents proving their identity, their marriage and their residency status, all of which can prove complicated.
RACE AGAINST TIME
Some failed to bring marriage documents with them when they fled, while others entered the country illegally or have expired residency permits.
And four years into the conflict, many Syrian refugees have met and married in Lebanon.
“Registering a marriage in Lebanon is even harder than registering a birth, so many refugees don’t — and then they can’t register their child,” Pollard said.
If the process is not completed by the child’s first birthday, a birth certificate can be issued only by a court, which is prohibitively costly and time-consuming.
So when Jamal Halabi’s son Ayham was born last year, the 32-year-old knew he faced a race against time to obtain a birth certificate.
Halabi fled Syria’s Latakia province in 2013 to avoid conscription, bringing his wife and three-month-old son Ahmed to Lebanon.
When their second son was born in 2014, going to the Syrian embassy was out of the question because of Halabi’s military service status.
But Halabi couldn’t register Ayham until he’d renewed his expired residency papers, which took eight desperate months.
“I wanted to do it by any means,” he told AFP in Tripoli, where his little family lives between the homes of relatives, moving every few months.
“He needed to have an identity. He’s my son: I wanted to show that he came from me, and to make sure he’d be able to go to nursery and to school.”
Once Halabi’s residency was renewed, the registration process went smoothly, with aid groups stepping in to help and bureaucrats waiving fees.
The UNHCR and its partners are working to encourage refugees to register their children and urging host countries to make the process easier.
But officials acknowledge that many of the 1.1 million Syrians in Lebanon, often living in dire conditions and struggling to make ends meet, do not see registering their children as a priority.
Some prefer to pay brokers on the Lebanese border to register their children in Syria, the refugee aid worker in Tripoli said.
“This is a huge problem, it is forgery because the child was not born in Syria,” she said.
“And when the parents come to cross the border, the Lebanese officials want to know how a child registered as being born in Syria arrived in Lebanon.”
Even for those with the right paperwork, the process can be an uphill struggle.
Youssef Salah, a 30-year-old from Hasakeh province, began the process of registering his daughter Milaa immediately after her birth.
“I kept thinking that when we go home to Syria, she wouldn’t be able to cross the border without any papers.”
But the doctor he asked to sign the birth notification demanded 10,000 Lebanese pounds ($6.60, 5.9 euros).
“I didn’t have any money. I’d walked all the way to the hospital because I didn’t have enough money for a bus,” Salah said.
The doctor eventually relented, and Milaa’s paperwork is now being processed.
But even so the outcome is uncertain: Salah’s residency has expired since he began the process, and he is not yet sure whether authorities will still issue the birth certificate.