Obtaining a marriage certificate in Syria has become a real challenge. While those living in regime-controlled areas use bribes or connections in order to obtain them, Syrians living in opposition-controlled areas have no access to marriage documentation or any kind of governmental services. “In order to obtain any document in Damascus, one has to bribe an officer in charge, especially if the other spouse is outside of Syria, which has become the norm,” said Samah.
“The fee stamp for most official papers used to cost 10 Syrian pounds ($0.05). Today it costs 25 Syran pounds ($0.13). The process of registering marriages is very complicated. The presence of the husband is required, but the problem is that most young Syrian men are either abroad, or in hiding and too scared that they would be arrested if they enter the capital,” she added.
For those that live in areas controlled by the opposition, it’s like living in foreign country. Although the opposition has created some alternative institutions, they still have not received international recognition. Civil courts in these areas have turned into religious ones or into documentary offices, like the ones under the Free Judiciary. The goal of these offices is to document all cases and transactions for the future.
“I defected from the Syrian army in 2012. When I got married a little later, the sheik of our town made the marriage certificate. One and a half years later, I had a baby girl. The only paper I have that proves she’s my daughter is the paper they gave me in the hospital in Turkey,” said Ahmad al-Saed from Tal Rifaat in the Aleppo countryside.
Ahmad continued: “I tried many times to add her to my civil registry, but I could not, because, since I defected from the army, I don’t have a civil identification card.”
Fatima, a lawyer from Raqqa, succeeded in registering her two children. “With help from lawyer friends in Damascus, I was able to add my children to my husband’s civil register, but it took me seven months and I paid about 100,000 Syrian pounds ($530) in bribes,” she said.
“We had no other choice. We wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia and we needed to obtain passports for them,” she added.
Many Syrians turn to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to register their marriages, because its legal offices do issue marriage certificates, but the lack of any international recognition of SNC documents makes them useless, according to Omar Kakeh.
“No country recognizes a marriage certificate or any other legal document issued by the SNC, not even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I tried to register my family with them for the purpose of resettlement in a foreign country, but they did not accept my marriage certificate,” he explains. Kakeh criticizes the U.N., since, according to him, “they are supposed to be the first to help Syrian people, but unfortunately, the U.N. doesn’t care and doesn’t take into account the daily hardships that Syrians go through.”
The majority of Syrians in Turkey don’t have passports, and they can’t turn to the Syrian government’s consular office. However, although the Turkish government tends to be lenient with Syrian refugees, the situation is different in other countries. Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are subject to local laws that deprive them of their rights, since most of them escaped Syria in haste and without official papers.
“Refugee camp administrative offices in Turkey count and document all marriage and births. Also, the Turkish government recognizes civil records without the requirement that they be certified by the Syrian minister of foreign affairs,” says Ibrahim al-Hussain, a judge who has defected from the Syrian judiciary and is now deputy head of the Free Judicial Council, a local organization.
Mutassem al-Hassan recalled his story: “I live in Gaziantep, Turkey, and my fiancé lived in Aleppo. I wanted to have a recognizable marriage by a court in Aleppo. Since I can’t travel to Aleppo, I had to travel three times to the Syrian Counselor Office in Istanbul in order to give a marriage proxy to my mother. After being harassed frequently by the officers there, I finally got it. I had to send the document through Lebanon, because there is no postal service between Turkey and Syria. When my mother and my fiancé went to the court in Aleppo, they were told that the proxy needed to be certified by the Department of General Intelligence in Damascus.”
“We had to wait for two months, during which time I was very scared because I am wanted by the Syrian security forces,” said a-Hassan. “Finally, we got the certification, but only after we paid 50,000 Syrian pounds ($265) as a bribe to a security officer.”
“After consulting with many lawyers, they explained that I can’t have a marriage certificate because I am wanted for obligatory military service,” he continued. “One lawyer found an alternative solution: we applied for marriage affirmation [meaning that the marriage had been conducted by a religious sheikh and now just needed to be legally recognized], and it took four months. The whole process took longer than six months, and cost me around 1,200 Syrian pounds ($6.35), while five years ago, my brother got his marriage certificate in two hours.”
In a similar case, Hiba said: “In order to get married and have a marriage certificate, we were asked for a medical report for my fiance, but since he is in Beirut, Lebanon, I paid the medical committee 5,000 Syrian pounds ($26.50) to turn a blind eye.”
Syrian Army Enlistees
These challenges are not limited to those within the opposition. Young men fulfilling their obligatory military service and those who volunteered to work for the army also face similar challenges. Syrian law requires approval from the ministry of defense as a prerequisite for marriage.
“I started fulfilling my obligatory service in 2011, and I haven’t been discharged yet. For three years, I tried to marry through the courts, but it did not happen because the ministry of defense refused to give an approval. So I had a religious marriage without registering it in court,” said Muhammad N, a lieutenant the Syrian Army.
“This marriage is not recognized by the state, and if I have a baby, I can’t add him or her to my civil registry,” he explained. “For this reason, we decided to postpone the idea of having a baby until I am discharged from the army and free again.”
Areas Controlled By the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and by the Islamic State (ISIS)
Things are much easier for people living in PYD-controlled areas, because government courts there continue to function, and they still communicate and co-ordinate with the ministry of justice in Damascus. Therefore, many from Aleppo and Idlib turn to the court in Afrin in order to get married.
“Afrin is 50 kilometers [31 miles] from our village,” said Muhammad Ezzo. “Those who have identity documents go there to get married, register marriages and register births. As for those who defected from the army, they can’t get anything done.”
On the other hand, ISIS has opened a department of civil registry for people to register marriages and births, but as a part of their fight against ISIS, most people refuse to do anything through ISIS offices.
“Only those tribes who have pledged allegiance to ISIS and those who support it deal with its offices,” recounted Muhammad Mussari, a media activist.
“Some of those who had worked at the office of civil registry under the regime continued to work under ISIS, because they were in need of an income,” he said. “Many people turn to sheiks to marry them, while some go to the regime’s courts in Deir Ezzor. However, that is not an option anymore because people have not been able to travel there for the last two months.”
The legal status of many Syrians continues to be subject to who happens to control the area in which they live. While documents issued by the regime are internationally recognized, documents issued by other authorities are not.
“The absence of international legal recognition of the National Coalition (SNC) and of the Syrian Temporary Government is a crippling blow to millions of Syrians who are scattered around the world; in exile and in countries of asylum,” said Judge Hussain.
This article and the photos were originally published in Arabic in Suwar Magazine. They are republished here with permission.