It may be difficult to believe that a simple piece of paper can carry so much weight. But for Syrian refugees living in host communities in Jordan, marriage certificates, birth certificates, and government-issued identity cards are essential to securing basic human rights.

Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi
Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi

Several months ago, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to interview dozens of Syrian refugee families about their experiences with obtaining these documents in Jordan. Like the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, these families lived outside of refugee camps, their legal status dependent on whether they had new government-issued identity cards, otherwise known as “MoI cards.” Without the cards, refugees lived in situations of legal uncertainty, without access to essential services, and at risk of arrest, detention, forced relocation to refugee camps, and possible refoulement.

The families we interviewed described a variety of experiences, but one theme was common throughout: lacking proper documentation can have cascading consequences for Syrians who already occupy a marginalized and vulnerable position.

For one Syrian mother, getting a new MoI card for her infant son, who was born in Jordan, seemed nearly impossible. In order to get the card, she needed proof of identity for her son, in the form of a birth certificate issued by Jordanian authorities. But she couldn’t get the birth certificate until she got a marriage certificate. And she couldn’t get the marriage certificate because the woman and her husband, who wed in Syria two years prior, could not provide sufficient proof that they had been married in Syria.

As is common practice in some parts of Syria, their marriage had been officiated outside the Shari’a court.

The couple could have legalized and registered their marriage in Jordan by obtaining a marriage ratification certificate. But that process can be long and complicated. And in this particular family’s case, they faced an extra challenge: the husband had recently returned to Syria. All these obstacles meant the mother wasn’t able to secure the new MoI card for her child.

Proving identity can be a problem for adults as well. Because of the conflict, Syrian adults may not possess the official identity documents required to obtain a new MoI card, a Syrian ID card, or a passport. In addition to proving identity, refugees also have to produce a variety of other documents to obtain a new MoI card, including an official health certificate (for those aged over 12) and proof of where they live.

As several families described, the effects of not having the new MoI card can be dire. In one case, a family said the local hospital that had been providing asthma treatment to their six-year-old child stopped care because the girl did not have the card. In another case, a husband said that he and his pregnant wife traveled to six health centers in order to receive a prenatal check-up, but she was denied entry because she did not have the card, or a related piece of documentation issued by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

For the small group of refugees who are ineligible for the cards, the situation is compounded; these refugees are at particular risk of being forced to relocate to one of Jordan’s refugee camps. One mother of four said she was reluctant to even go to the market for fear of encountering authorities. Another man said that without the card, his son-in-law was afraid to leave the house.

“It’s like he’s in jail,” the man said.

Without documentation, Syrian refugees face additional longer-term risks; for example, Syrian children without birth certificates or other proof of identity, like the young son mentioned above, could be at risk of statelessness. One father said he often thought about how “one day Syria will calm down, and we will want to go back,” but the authorities “will ask me for proof [that my child] is my son, and then we may not be able to get him back to Syria.”

For these families, official documents aren’t just a means to receiving critical services. They’re proof of so much more.

The Clinic’s joint report, “Securing Status: Syrian refugees and the documentation of legal status, identity, and family relationships in Jordan,” was launched on November 9, 2016 in Amman, Jordan.