“Children on the Margins”

Report by the Fletcher School of Global Affairs
International Law Practicum (FILP)
In partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)

A new report finds that hundreds of thousands of children living in opposition-held areas in Northwest Syria are being denied access to their rights to nationality and legal identity, resulting in profound deprivations of their most basic human rights. As the report documents, if their rights to nationality and legal identity are not ensured, these children, and the adults they become, will remain living on the margins, vulnerable to the harms associated with exclusion and statelessness. 

Since February’s devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey, the Government of Syria (GoS) has become increasingly re-integrated into the regional fold, returning to the Arab League in May after an eleven year suspension. Meanwhile Northwest Syria (NWS) – the last opposition stronghold, where nearly half of all of Syria’s internally displaced live and the region hardest hit by the earthquake – continues to be isolated, facing an ever dire humanitarian crisis.

Currently, over 1.7 million children are living in this neglected pocket of Syria, most of them having been forcibly displaced. After twelve years of war and ongoing hostilities, the children of NWS remain trapped there. To date, however, there has been little focus on their plight, and perhaps no issue is of greater long-term concern than threats that remain to their rights to nationality and legal identity, critical for any political solution in Syria and in the region more broadly.  

Without having access to recognized documentation of their births or basic existence—rights guaranteed by international law—children in NWS have already been suffering a slew of violations of their rights, including being denied healthcare, humanitarian aid, schooling, and not being able to travel outside the area, even to reunite with their family. “Children on the Margins,” calls attention to the fact that the lack of recognized identity documentation compounded by Syria’s gender discriminatory nationality law has another catastrophic result, with children of NWS becoming a new generation of stateless people in the region.  

While de facto authorities in NWS, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s affiliated Syrian Salvation Government, have issued their own civil documentation, this documentation is not recognized by GoS, nor other governments; in fact such documentation is largely perceived by GoS as evidence of being traitors and/or affiliated with the opposition and can present grave security risks if found by GoS and other authorities. 

News coverage and political analysis of NWS is largely focused on geopolitical and security-framed discussions, such as HTS’s terrorist designation. Limited access to NWS by journalists and human rights organizations has also meant that the humanitarian crisis and the impacts on children in NWS are not extensively covered.  

Based on in-depth research, this Report documents the many deprivations experienced by children in NWS that flow as a result of not having access to their nationality and legal identity, features six case studies, and provides recommendations on how to address these fundamental children’s rights violations. Without concerted action by relevant governments and stakeholders, a key informant asked what future for the children in NWS but try and escape by sea, for ‘papers and a life’? 

Contact: Christine Bustany, Senior Lecturer in International Law, the Fletcher School of Global Affairs, at Tufts University.

Photos from Northwest Syria by NRC.

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