Much of my 2015 was spent looking at two important topics: statelessness and faith. The following is a section of my graduate thesis for a Master of Religion at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. While grounded in the specific context of Lebanon, the research is relevant to greater discussions on statelessness and displacement. This Part 2 discusses statelessness in the Lebanese context.
Section One: Statelessness in the MENA Region
Lebanon is, by all accounts, a diminutive country filled with grand complexities in an ever-dynamic region. A myriad of political, religious, social and historical forces contribute to chronic problems of statelessness, and many hundreds of thousands of residents currently have no claim to citizenship. Understanding the Lebanese context requires first examining the regional state of statelessness.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region features a dire statelessness situation. Estimates place the number of (non-Palestinians) stateless at 444,237, though limitations in data and reporting suggests that the actual number is higher. Numerous factors contribute to this figure. One is statelessness stemming from 20th Century state succession when newly drawn nation-states implemented nationality laws that excluded certain groups. Measures frequently failed to incorporate nomadic communities unaccustomed to the new political realities of the region, thus leaving large groups of people without citizenship. In some situations states targeted groups or individuals for nationality omission or denationalization in order to manipulate demographic balances or boost national security. Discriminative laws that deny women the right to transmit citizenship have compounded statelessness, and in this regard “the MENA region has unfortunately been slower to achieve reform of nationality laws to reflect international standard.” Additionally, the region’s extensive refugee and displacement situations exacerbate the threat of statelessness. This includes the exceptional case of more than 4 million stateless Palestinian refugees, a topic that will receive further attention later. Intensifying armed conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War, and ongoing waves of mass displacement mean the region “now faces the prospect of adding hundreds of thousands to the stateless population.” In a part of the world wrought with challenges, statelessness is a crisis of immense, intricate and increasing dimensions.
Section Two: Developments in Lebanese Nationality
Lebanon’s statelessness scope is difficult to determine. All demographic figures in Lebanon are, at best, rough estimates- no official national census has been conducted since 1932- and collecting stateless numbers is problematic for the reason noted in the previous chapter. Even in the absence of suitable data, it can be confidently said that Lebanon has a significant stateless population with estimated numbers in the range of 80,000-200,000 persons (excluding stateless Palestinians). The problem stems from a complex convergence of forces including the exclusion of ethnic communities, gender discrimination in nationality laws, and high rates of human displacement. Many of the root causes of statelessness can be traced to Lebanon’s historical development over the past century.
Lebanon has long exhibited a diverse collection of religious sects (mainly Christian and Islamic) and ethnic groups joined in a knotty relationship of shared nationality. Throughout centuries of Ottoman rule (15th -20th Century) political positions were often selectively assigned to reflect religious demographics, and Lebanon emerged from her colonial experience by drafting a constitution that maintained many core elements of sectarianism. Though originally meant to be a temporary measure, confessionalism became the enduring framework of the Lebanese political system and a primary shaper of national realities. The subsequent drama has been a “game of numbers” with nationality policies plagued by “legal and administrative misuses aiming to modify the demographic balance between sects and, accordingly, obtaining a larger share of power.” This delicate arrangement of religious demographics and its political implications remain an essential backdrop for any survey of statelessness in Lebanon.
Current Lebanese citizenship laws trace their origins back to guidelines defined in the French High Commissioner’s arête n° 15/S issued on January 19th, 1925. The document established the policies for nationality transmission, naturalization and denaturalization that continue to be administered today. As far as nationality laws are concerned, “the main provisions have not changed since 1925.” Arête n° 15/S determined jus sanguinis as the primary means for acquiring Lebanese citizenship; jus soli applies in very few cases while naturalization is subject to rarely-applied executive decision.
The census of 1932 served as the basis for Lebanon’s initial allocation of nationality, yet the very endeavor of the census previewed a Christian-Muslim rift that has persisted throughout the state’s nationality debate. At the time, the two groups espoused differing terms for determining a national. The Christian position ultimately prevailed and successfully included selective migrants so as “to secure a Christian demographic majority.” Individuals that did not meet the qualifications were considered foreign and denied nationality. This included predominately-Muslim groups that had boycotted a 1921 census (thus failing to receive the ID cards needed to prove permanent residency), migratory communities and Kurdish refugees among others. The sectarian-fueled ‘game of numbers’ had been played and many came out of the contest defeated and stateless.
Some de jure stateless have lived in Lebanon with ‘under study’ (jinsiyaa qayd a-dars) or ‘no nationality/without records’ (maktoumeen al qayd) statuses. This classification permits legal residency, movement across borders, and access to some public services but denies full citizenship rights. Many Bedouin fell into this category after failing to receive nationality following the 1932 census due to being physically out of the territory during seasonal migration or refusing to register as an act of protest against French colonial involvement. This led to chronic statelessness among an estimated 100,000-150,000 person Bedouin population. The Dom, or Gypsy, communities in Lebanon were likewise largely excluded from citizenship as ‘under study’ residents. Kurds are another ethnic group in Lebanon that has been marked by statelessness. Large numbers of Kurdish refugees arrived during the mid-1920s after fleeing Turkish Kurdistan and many failed to receive nationality. These groups are among the communities that have suffered from “living beyond the ‘boundaries’ of government services- despite being an ethic group indigenous to Lebanese territory even before the existence of the Lebanese state.”
Lebanese nationality laws have remained largely unchanged since 1925 but the situation has not been wholly static. Limited reforms mean that “courts have played an important role in interpreting citizenship,” and doors to naturalization have opened at different points. Selective granting of citizenship has sometimes been a method used by powerful state-players to extend political and economic interests, and “it is commonly admitted that Christians and members of the upper classes were more likely to obtain citizenship.” One noteworthy event in recent history occurred with the 1994 Naturalization Decree when the government widely made citizenship available to non-Lebanese. The action addressed statelessness by awarding Lebanese citizenship to an estimated 108,000 -220,000 individuals- of which two thirds were Muslim and one third Christian- but “approximately half of those naturalized already held a foreign nationality so the measure was not solely targeted at remedying statelessness. Many de jure stateless individuals, including significant numbers of Bedouin, Dom and Kurds, saw their ‘understudy statuses’ transitioned to full-fledged citizenship, though not all were able to capitalize on the opportunity. As can be expected, the decree met fierce opposition. Such drastic flux in the “game of numbers” led many Christian leaders to fear “that the decree was a threat to the existence of Lebanon, as it aggravated the demographic marginalization of [the Christian] community.” An appeal was issued in 2000 by the Lebanese Maronite League against the 1994 Naturalization Decree, and citizenship has been withdrawn in a number of cases.
De facto statelessness is widespread in Lebanon with numerous factors contributing to its prevalence. Among the causes are unregistered births. Many have access to citizenship- either Lebanese or another nationality- but are unable to realize this due to births that were never properly registered. Statelessness can result if the problem is not remedied. Acquiring nationality in Lebanon requires more than simply attaining a birth certificate since births must be recorded “in a civil register by the applicable government authority, allowing verification of each child’s identity, age, and status as a child.” If a birth is not registered within the first year of a child’s life then a lengthy petition process through the courts must be conducted. Failure to do so may result in a child never being considered a national by authorities. Additionally, children risk statelessness if their parents are not married (including marriages that are not officially registered) or if parents themselves are stateless.
Many cases of Lebanese statelessness result from nationality laws that discriminate against women. The 1925 Nationality Law Article 1 establishes paternal jus sanguinis by declaring anyone with a Lebanese father, whether residing in Lebanon or abroad, a Lebanese national. Despite ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women– which states in article 9 (2) that “State Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children”- Lebanon does not allow women to give citizenship to their children nor their husbands. It is one of only 27 countries that prevent women from transmitting nationality. The child of a Lebanese mother that does not, or cannot, acquire the citizenship of the father becomes stateless, and only in rare cases can a Lebanese woman pass citizenship. Lebanese law does permit jus soli nationality in rare cases- such as the case of foundlings of unknown parentage- and naturalization can occur by presidential decree or if a foreigner is deemed to offer Lebanon “exceptional services.” Even so, any acquisition of citizenship by means other than paternal jus sanguinis is extremely rare.
Growing public pressure has materialized in recent years to reform nationality laws and grant Lebanese women equal rights to men. Campaigns by advocacy and NGO groups have helped bring the issue to policymakers’ attention; three proposals between 2010 and 2013 were submitted to parliament though none were approved. Despite no reform to nationality laws, the government has taken steps to address the situation, and as of April 2010 foreign children of Lebanese mothers have been able to apply for renewable three-year residency permits.
Section Three: Palestinians in Lebanon and Emerging Threats of Statelessness
As previously mentioned, the Palestinian refugee situation presents an exceptional case of chronic statelessness. The crisis remains one of the most complex and tragic quandaries of the last century as more than half of eight million global Palestinians suffer as de jure stateless persons. Lebanon hosts an estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees, the majority of which trace their personal or ancestral displacement to the events of 1948 when some 100,000 individuals fled from Palestine to Lebanon. Most reside in twelve official refugee camps, which have become increasingly hazardous due to high population densities, deteriorating infrastructure, and restrictions on implementing development. Palestinians in Lebanon fall into three primary categories of classification: refugees registered with the UNRWA and Lebanese authorities, refugees registered with the Lebanese authorities but not the UNRWA, and non-ID refugees. Lebanon is a signee to a number of treatises outlining the provisions for rights and privileges of Palestinian refugees living in Arab states; however, the reality is Palestinians remain an excluded and marginalized segment of Lebanese society. Palestinians cannot access public healthcare, cannot claim social security, may not be allowed to enter public schooling, and are severely limited in vocational opportunities. Studies have shown that “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the worst socio-economic situation in UNRWA’s five areas of operations” and feature the highest rates of Special Hardships Cases. Discrimination, harassment and detention by security forces are commonplace.
The legal standing of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon reveals a deteriorating trend. In 1987, Lebanon rescinded its signing of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, essentially “cancelling all socio-economic rights previously granted to Palestinians.” 1995 legislation introduced a law requiring Palestinian refugees to show exit and entry visas when traveling in and out of Lebanon. The government issued a Tawteen (settlement) in 2001 that made citizenship a requirement for land ownership, effectively prohibiting Palestinians from owning or inheriting property. Additionally, laws were made in 2010 allowing Lebanese mothers to give their foreign children three-year renewable residency permits but the provision does not apply to children of Palestinian men. Attempts to improve the status of Palestinians in Lebanon are faced with widespread resistance by power-players seeking to maintain a status-quo; “any question of granting them rights is seen as a step toward permanent integration.” As victims of statelessness, they “are the first to pay the price for political instability and insecurity in the countries where they find themselves.” Amidst the many layers of the Palestinian tragedy, statelessness stands as an especially severe dilemma.
The drama of forced migration to Lebanon has entered new phases in recent years and with this a growing threat of statelessness. Since the outbreak of civil strife in 2011, an estimated 1.1 million Syrian refugees have taken residency in the country. Lebanon now boasts the highest global per capita concentration of refugees in the world with nearly a quarter of her population consisting of Syrian refugees. An often overlooked ramification of the displacement crisis is the heightened risk of statelessness. According to a U.N. study, more that 36,000 Syrian refugee births in Lebanon have gone unregistered, meaning tens of thousands of children lack any form of identity documentation. Gender discrimination in nationality laws only exacerbates the threat. Like Lebanon, Syrian citizenship is granted strictly through fathers and, with “some 25 percent of Syrian refugee households without fathers to help verify nationality,” acquiring or proving a child’s citizenship can become extremely problematic. As regional conflicts continue unabated, the threat of statelessness among displaced populations is as real as ever. It is, unfortunately, another chapter in Lebanon’s ongoing statelessness narrative.
Lebanese statelessness demonstrates a perfect storm of political, social, religious and historical forces converging to create a perpetuating human rights crisis. The causes may be complex and the potential solutions controversial, but the bottom line is hauntingly simple: hundreds of thousands of individuals in Lebanon are struggling to exist without belonging.