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Syrian Kurds: People Who Do Not Exist

The month of March brought death and torture to Kurds instead of the celebration of life that normally heralds the beginning of new Kurdish year, traditionally commemorated on the first day of spring.  In fact, in all four parts of Kurdistan (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey), Kurds suffered this month more than at other times by virtue of the fact that this is the month when the Kurds celebrate their national day or Newroz "New Kurdish year" and have gathered to protest against tyranny and oppression. This trend started in March 12, 2004, when there was the first full-scale Kurdish uprising in the whole Kurdish Region of Syria where more than 85 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and thousands were arrested after……..  In 2005, 2006, 2007, and most recently on March 20, 2008, Kurds were also killed and injured during the season of Newroz.

These outcries stem from the denial of human rights of a people are not recognized, Syrian Kurds.  Twice in recent months, President Bashar Al-Assad was in a position to resolve the plight of more than a quarter of a million stateless people in Syria who struggle to survive without citizenship. Since the Iraqi liberation, hundreds of thousands of Kurds demonstrate daily and demand democracy in Syria for all Syrians, the granting of rights for Kurds, reversing ethnic cleansing policies and granting autonomy to the Kurdish Region. His failure to act means continued hardship for Kurds who have been stripped of their nationality, despite the fact they have resided in Syria since well before the creation of the modern state. “All I want is to have my childhood,” one boy explained. But without proof of citizenship, stateless individuals cannot enjoy their basic rights. Children do not have regular access to education or healthcare. For adults, formal employment is impossible. They cannot travel freely in the country much less outside. Some individuals risk their lives in dangerous and expensive attempts to find a way out of Syria.

As a whole, Kurds in Syria face obstacles to securing rights, but this group is in a unique position.  They cannot own property, have passports, vote, be publicly employed, or even practice certain professions. One can find a doctor selling tea on the street and a teacher transporting flour sacks. Child labor is not uncommon, and youngsters can look forward to picking cotton, selling cigarettes and shining shoes. They are not eligible for food subsidies or admission to public hospitals.

Kurdish statelessness in Syria originated in 1962 when a census was conducted in the northeastern region ostensibly to identify "alien infiltrators" who had crossed the Turkish border since 1945. It was actually one component of a campaign to “Arabize” this resource-rich area, then primarily populated by non-Arabs or Kurds.

The census was undertaken in an arbitrary manner, resulting in situations in which brothers from the same family, born in the same Syrian village, were classified differently. Fathers became foreigners, while their sons remained citizens, or vice versa. Kurds who had served in the Syrian army lost citizenship, while families who were able to bribe officials kept theirs.

As a consequence, more than 120,000 people, or about 20 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population at the time, were rendered stateless. Some were also displaced to make way for Arab settlements. Thousands of people went to sleep as Syrians and woke up to find they were no longer citizens.  They became foreigners (or ajanib in Arabic) in their own country. Over time the number of denationalized Syrian Kurds has multiplied to over 300,000.  Without legal ties to any country, they are stateless under international law.

Stateless Kurds are particularly incensed by inhumane restrictions placed on their right to marry. Many couples are deemed single by the state, and as a consequence are prevented from registering their children, much less sharing a room in a hotel. Approximately 100,000 maktoumeen (children of unrecognized marriages who have no documents at all) are invisible and subjected to abuse at the hands of authorities.

With so few options for survival, stateless Kurds seek opportunities abroad, taking tremendous risks to leave Syria by entrusting their safety to human smugglers and pay $3,000 to $12,000 to crime rings, believing that the hardship of living illegally in other countries would be preferable to the hopelessness of their situation in Syria. A few even seek international protection as refugees.

Over the years, there have been plenty of opportunities to resolve the plight of stateless people in Syria. After the March 2004 uprising in the Kurdish Region of Syria and in a speech marking the beginning of his second presidential mandate, President Al-Assad said, "There is a consensus in Syria on the need to resolve the question of the 1962 census.”  He told the parliament that new legislation was being drafted.

In late 2007 the Syrian news agency SANA reported that President Al-Assad ordered authorities to distribute identification cards to more than 20,000 Druze residents in the Golan Heights who have refused to accept Israeli citizenship in an effort to "emphasize the belonging of the Syrian residents of the Golan Heights to the Syrian motherland.” It is ironic that President Al-Assad can seemingly issue citizenship to one group with the single stroke of pen but needs years of study to issue citizenship to long-staying Kurds.  Attempts to encourage Syria to uphold its international obligations are met with hollow promises or are blithely ignored. 

It should be recognized that Kurds are the largest Syrian constituency seeking democracy and a new constitution for Syria  They are willing to do what it takes to bring democracy to Syria and implement a federalist government which will protect the rights of all minorities.

President Al-Assad should take immediate steps to grant citizenship to stateless individuals in accordance with Article 3 of the Syrian Nationality Act and its obligations under international law. The U.S. should establish a clear policy on Kurds in Syria and take its commitment to human rights seriously enough to engage the Syrian government until each person’s human rights to a nationality is upheld.

Sherkoh Abbas is the President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria.