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1. Introduction

This year is the 50th birthday of an important United Nations convention: the ‘Convention


on the Reduction of Statelessness (UN, 1961). Even though the right to a nationality is a

human right encompassed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UN, 1948, art.

15), still statelessness is nowadays an enormous problem. Even 50 years after the creation

of this convention, statelessness is still an alive problem worldwide affecting millions of

people. Statelessness often has severe consequences for the people whom it concerns. No

country is obliged to recognise someone without a nationality. Usually stateless people

will therefore not posses a passport or other identity document, resulting in many

problems and consequences (Van Waas, 2008; Lynch, 2005). This thesis will start with

examining statelessness and to derive the main consequences of statelessness from the

existing literature on statelessness, followed by a case study on statelessness of Kurds in


There is worldwide a lot of attention for Kurds, Kurdistan and the Kurdish issue,

predominantly in Turkey and Iraq due to the atrocities committed against Kurds living

there. The Syrian Kurdish situation is highly underrepresented in academics and in the

media, mainly because the Kurdish population in Syria is relatively small compared to the

Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iraq and Iran (Yildiz, 2005; Tejel, 2009; Amain &

Kielstra, 1992; Vanly, 1992). This thesis touches on two precarious problems,

statelessness and the (historical) human rights situation of Kurds in Syria. These topics

combined lead to a more specific research on stateless Syrian Kurds.

1.1 Research question

The following research question will be investigated in this thesis:

-What are the main consequences of statelessness for stateless Kurds in Syria?

Preliminary literature review indicates several consequences of statelessness. In this thesis

I will focus on legal, social, psychological and political consequences of statelessness for

Syrian Kurds. In the research question and further in this thesis, the words ‘consequence’

and ‘consequences’ are used as a logical and causal outcome and inference from the

condition of statelessness. A consequence denotes the relation of a result and its cause.


Causal results of statelessness will lead in some cases to other consequences, this can

result in a line of causal consequences and relations.

1.2 Research methods

This thesis is partly based on literature study, and partly on fieldwork study. The effects

and consequences of statelessness on Syrian stateless Kurds are explored through

fieldwork research. The nature of this study is explorative and ethnographic (Baarda & De

Goede, 2007). Since the main consequences of statelessness for stateless Kurds in Syria

are not clearly defined yet, this thesis will bring new perspectives on this issue.

Qualitative research methods like unstructured open interviews and (partly participant)

observation are the main research methods used. More information on the research

methods and methodological considerations can be found in chapter 4.

1.3 Thesis structure

The thesis consists of two parts. Part 1 is based on a literature study and has an

introductory and theoretical nature, while part 2 is empirical in nature. To understand the

consequences of statelessness for Syrian Kurds, it is important to first learn more about

statelessness in general. Therefore part 1 will start after this introduction with the second

chapter about statelessness, its origin and the consequences for whom it concerns. The

third chapter introduces Syria, Kurds and Syrian Kurds. Furthermore, this chapter shortly

introduces human rights in Syria and statelessness of Syrian Kurds.

Part 2 starts with the fourth chapter on methodology. More insight to the methodology

and methodological considerations will be given. Methodological choices will be

explained and justified. The fifth chapter will present, analyse and discuss the field data.

The results, the consequences of statelessness for Syrian Kurds, will be structured, based

on a model derived from literature on statelessness and presented in the second chapter.

Finally this thesis will be completed with a summary, a conclusion, the answers to the

research question and lastly, a discussion.


Part 1


2. Statelessness

Chapter two deals with statelessness worldwide, to help us understand the specifics of

statelessness in the situation of stateless Syrian Kurds in the next chapters. Statelessness

will be introduced, defined, placed in a recent historical context and statelessness will be

examined in relation to international law. The origins of statelessness and how one

becomes stateless, which people are stateless and which consequences statelessness can

face are presented. Finally a short conclusion will end this chapter.

2.1 Defining statelessness

Since the concept ‘nationality’ is an important part of the definition for statelessness, a

common definition on nationality will be shortly introduced. The UNHCR definition for

nationality: “Nationality is the legal bond between a person and a state as provided for

under the State’s laws and encompasses political, economic, social and other rights as

well as the responsibilities of both the State and of the individual” (UNHCR, 1999a, p. 5).

Having a nationality usually equals having certain rights. Batchelor (1998) states that the

right to have a nationality is “in fact the right to have rights”. Statelessness denotes the

lack of a nationality or the lack of an effective nationality. Although an unequivocal

definition is lacking, the definition for statelessness used in the 1954 UN ‘Convention

Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons’ is often referred to. It defines a stateless

person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of

its law” (UN, 1954, p. 1). Batchelor defines statelessness as: “Those who have not

received nationality automatically under the operation of any State’s law are stateless

persons or, more specifically, de jure stateless persons” (Batchelor, 1998, p. 171).

The above-mentioned definitions are strictly legal, and refer to de jure statelessness,

statelessness by law, people who formally do not have a nationality. But there is also a

group of people who are de facto stateless. Technically a de facto stateless person does

posses a nationality, but in reality this nationality is ineffective. De facto stateless people

do have a (alleged) nationality, but they lack the rights and privileges coming with a

nationality (Van Waas, 2008; UNHCR, 2010a). De facto stateless people do not have an

effective nationality, so in practice their situation is often similar to a de jure stateless

person. Important definitions on de facto statelessness are Gyulai’s definition of a de facto

stateless person: “a person unable to demonstrate that he or she is de jure stateless, but he


or she does not have effective nationality and does not enjoy national protection” (Gyulai,

2007, p. 8). And Massey recently defined de facto statelessness as: “De facto stateless

persons are persons outside the country of their nationality who are unable or, for valid

reasons, are unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country” (Massey,

2010, p. 61). De facto stateless persons are according to Massey (2010) by definition not

in the country of their nationality. The UN ‘Convention on the Reduction of

Statelessness’ (1961) does not clearly define statelessness, but Resolution No. I of the

Final Act of the Conference that drew up the Convention recommends that “persons who

are de facto stateless should as far as possible be treated as de jure stateless to enable

them to acquire an effective nationality” (UN, 1961). This implies that de facto stateless

persons should be understood as persons without an effective nationality (Van Waas,

2008). Massey distinguishes three main categories of de facto stateless persons: “ Persons

who do not enjoy the rights attached to their nationality, persons who are unable to

establish their nationality, or who are of undetermined nationality, and persons who, in

the context of State succession, are attributed the nationality of a State other than the State

of their habitual residence” (Massey, 2010, p.iii).

There is an ongoing discussion on an international generally accepted definition of

statelessness (Van Waas, 2008). Some researchers, non-governmental organisations and

other organisations include both de jure and de facto stateless people in their definition of

statelessness, mainly because there is no significant difference between the protection

needs and problems of de jure and de facto stateless people (Gyulai, 2007; Van Waas,

2008). Already in 1952 the special rapporteur for the International Law Commission,

commented on this issue as follows: “Purely formal solutions (...) might reduce the

number of stateless persons, but not the number of unprotected persons. They might lead

to a shifting from statelessness de jure to statelessness de facto” (Manley, 1952, p. 20). In

this thesis both de jure and de facto stateless people will be included. It would be beyond

the scope of this criminological thesis to analyse the differences of de jure and de facto

statelessness and the legal interpretation. However, in practise stateless Kurds in Syria are

de jure stateless. Therefore, statelessness in the next chapters will refer to de jure

statelessness, unless mentioned differently.

Since a clear universal interpretation and definition of statelessness is still lacking, there is

much uncertainty about the number of stateless people and the full extent of the problem.

One of the causes is indistinctness and an ongoing discussion on the definition on


statelessness, resulting in unclear, changing and sometimes-unreliable statistics.

Furthermore, it can be a political choice to ‘forget’ about a group of stateless people in a

country and to keep no official records on statelessness (Van Waas, 2008). The UNHCR

has data available about 6.6 million stateless people, but points out that the reality will be

closer to an estimated 12 to 15 million stateless people worldwide (UNHCR, 2010b; Van

Waas, 2008). Refugee International estimates a minimum of 11 million stateless persons

in the world (Lynch, 2005). Van Waas (2008) and Dokters van de Wereld (2009)

conclude that worldwide there are approximately 15 million stateless people, or more.

There is a lack of clarity on the precise numbers, also because it is often not clear if these

numbers contain de jure stateless people, de facto stateless people, or both. The next

paragraph will examine statelessness in an international legal context.

2.2 Statelessness and international law

Under international law, a state is obliged to take in and protect its own subjects. No

country is obliged to take in a stateless person and offer it protection. This often leads to

problems, which is one of the reasons for international agreements on conventions

concerning statelessness (Kooijmans, 2002). Another important factor that stimulated the

foundation of the statelessness conventions was the situation after the Second World War.

Millions of people were stateless mainly because of new drawn land borders or because

they had fled during the war. The need to regulate the status of the stateless was

recognised (Lynch, 2005; Leclerc & Colville, 2007). In 1948 the United Nations (UN)

realised the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. Article 15 of the ‘Universal

Declaration of Human Rights’ states that: “Everyone has the right to a nationality and no

one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor the right to change his nationality”

(UN, 1948 art.15 sub1 and 2). This makes statelessness by itself by definition a violation

of human rights (The Equal Rights Trust, 2010). A problem is that the ‘Universal

Declaration of Human Rights’ is not binding for its member states (Van Waas, 2008).

Ever since the UNHCR was established in 1950, it had the mandate on dealing with

statelessness and stateless persons (Massey, 2010). In 1951 the ‘Refugee Convention’ was

adopted from which the United Nations expected that it would protect both refugees and

the stateless. But many stateless people appeared not to be refugees, and were not

protected by the convention. It was realised by then that there is a technical distinction

between refugees and stateless people (Batchelor, 1995). Therefore, in 1954, the


‘Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons’ (UN, 1954) was adopted. This

convention regulates the legal status and the treatment of stateless people. It does not

apply to people for whom there are serious suspicions that they committed a war crime, a

crime against humanity, a crime against peace or acts against the purpose and principles

of the United Nations (Lynch, 2005). The special rapporteur of the International Law

Commission urged already in 1953 to adopt a draft ‘Convention on the Elimination of

Statelessness’. However, the draft version was not agreed on and was found too radical.

Finally in 1961, the less ambitious ‘Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness’ (UN,

1961) was adopted, mainly to set rules for granting nationality by birth to prevent more

statelessness (Ersbøll, 2006; Van Waas, 2008). A problem with these two conventions is

the small number of countries that ratified them. Only 65 countries ratified the 1954

convention and even only 37 the 1961 convention (UNHCR, 2010b; Van Waas, 2009).

In addition to the 1954 and 1961 conventions on statelessness a number of other

international human rights law instruments mention statelessness (Lynch, 2005). Among

others, the ‘Convention on the Right of the Child’ (UN, 1990), the ‘International

Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ (UN, 1976), the ‘Convention on the Nationality of

Married Women’ (UN, 1957), the ‘Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination

against Women’ (UN, 1981), the ‘International Convention on the Elimination of all

Forms of Racial Discrimination’ (UN, 1969) and the ‘Convention on Certain Questions

Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Law’ (League of Nations, 1930). In the last

decades two new European conventions on statelessness have been released in a reaction

to the conflicts and border changes in Europe in the years before, especially the collapse

of the former Soviet Union, former Czechoslovakia and former Yugoslavia (Dokters van

de Wereld, 2009). In 1997 the ‘European Convention on Nationality’ was adopted

(Council of Europe, 1997). The most recent convention on statelessness is the ‘European

Convention on Avoidance of Statelessness in Relation to State Succession’ (Council of

Europe, 2006).

Nowadays, the obligation to prevent statelessness is seen as part of customary

international law (Ersbøll, 2006). Even so, statelessness appears to be a persistent

phenomenon. It is clear that several international human rights law instruments state that

everyone has the right to a nationality. However, very little direction is given as to which

nationality (Batchelor, 1998). According to Batchelor there still ‘remain a large number of

people who are without effective national protection, but whom neither the refugee nor


the statelessness conventions apply’ (Batchelor, 1995, p. 234). To illustrate the position of

a stateless person, Lynch (2005) calls them ‘international orphans’, not protected by any

state. The next paragraph will give insight in how one gets a nationality, how one can

become stateless and where stateless people are found.

2.3 Stateless people

A nationality can be obtained in a variety of ways and depends on the rules of every

specific country. Nationality law is considered domestic or national law. Most nationality

laws are based on either the ius sanguinis principle, or the ius soil principle. The ius

sanguinis principle is based on the blood relation from a child with the parents. A child

will obtain the nationality of one of the parents. The ius soil principle is based on the

place of birth. A child born on the territory of a county that bases its nationality law on the

ius soil will obtain the nationality of that state. And finally it is possible that someone

accepts the nationality of a country where he or she is living and will be naturalised. This

is called ius loci. Most developed countries use the ius sanguinis principle, except for the

United States and Canada where the ius soil principle is being used. Furthermore, almost

all South American counties use the ius soil principle (Kooijmans, 2002; Dokters van de

Wereld, 2009). A nationality acquired based on the ius sanguinis principle or the ius soil

principle will generally be internationally recognised. But sometimes these principles are

conflicting and people get a double nationality. In some extreme cases people end up

without a nationality and become stateless because of conflicting rules.

There are several ways how one can become stateless. These can be classified into three

main ‘sources of statelessness’ as mentioned by the special rapporteur of the International

Law Commission in 1953 (Ersbøll, 2006). Listed below are the most common ways of

becoming stateless, classified in the three categories of the special rapporteur of the

International Law Commission:

Statelessness at birth:

Some children are born stateless out of stateless parents and become automatically

stateless. Furthermore, the failure to register the birth of a baby can lead to the loss of

ones nationality. And lastly, the above-mentioned possibility of conflicting rules can lead

to statelessness at birth.


Statelessness by deprivation of nationality:

One can be denationalised by a state, individually or to by a whole group. People can

become stateless because of deliberate exclusion of an entire group because of political,

religious or ethnic discrimination (UNHCR, 2007). Discrimination on religion, ethnicity,

political opinion or gender can result in denying or revoking nationality (UNHCR, 1999a;

UNHCR, 2007).

Statelessness in case of territorial changes:

One can loose his or her nationality by moving to another country, and not be able to gain

a new nationality in the new country. Another common cause of statelessness is the

disruption of a state after a conflict. Changed borders after a war or conflict can lead to

whole ethnic groups being stateless.

Apart from these three main categories, statelessness is also frequently caused by

bureaucratic incidents, changes in domestic legislations, marriage or divorce and other

conflicts of law and procedural problems, often in relation to a newborn child (UNHCR,

1999a; UNHCR, 2007). Goris, Harrington & Kohn (2009) state that racial and ethnic

discrimination are the main reasons why people become stateless. Further, gender

discrimination is still present in several countries. Even though different conventions and

other international human rights law instruments forbid discrimination of women when it

comes to passing on nationality, this is still practise in numerous countries. If a child is

born from a mixed marriage for example, it will, in some countries, automatically obtain

the fathers nationality. In some countries the mother cannot pass on her nationality, even

if the father is stateless, resulting in a stateless child. Some countries that applied these

practises, like Iran, Morocco, Egypt and Bahrain have loosened their regulations and

adopted new laws which allow children to adopt their mothers nationality, although under

restrictive conditions (Manly, 2007).

The above-mentioned causes for statelessness can be found all over the world, in every

continent (Van Waas, 2009). There are less stateless groups and people found in North

and South America caused by the fact that almost all countries in the America’s use the

ius soil principle. A child born on America’s soil automatically receives the nationality of

the country. The box below presents the largest and most predominant groups of stateless

people in the world.


Box 1. Most predominant groups of stateless people in the world (Lynch, 2005; Leclerc &

Colville, 2007; Open Society Institute; Dokters van de Wereld, 2009; Amnesty International,

2010b; UNHCR, 2009b).


2.4 Consequences of statelessness

Statelessness has serious consequences for the people whom it concerns. The lack of a

nationality is touching the daily lives of many stateless people. This paragraph will

identify and list problems and consequences faced by stateless people. The consequences

a stateless person is facing are depending on where he or she is living and why this person

is stateless. These differ from country to country. In some countries a stateless person has

some rights, and for example a document that allows them to travel, but in many other

countries a stateless person has no rights at all. The consequences of statelessness will

influence the opportunities to develop, and lead a safe and free live. In this paragraph

different consequences of statelessness will be categorised in four separate categories

derived from literature on statelessness: legal, social, psychological and political

consequences of statelessness.

2.4.1 Legal consequences of statelessness

Statelessness is a legal concept, causing among others, legal consequences for stateless

people. Van Waas (2008) calls stateless persons ‘legal ghosts’ to illustrate the legal

severity of statelessness. The most important characteristic of statelessness is the lack of a

nationality. This can be seen as the main inference of statelessness, resulting in many

other consequences. A stateless person has no nationality and no formal legal rights,

manifested in the fact that stateless people do not posses a passport. This results in many

consequences. A stateless person is generally not able to sign a contract because a

stateless person has no formal legal right and is therefore not empowered to sign as a legal

party. Therefore a stateless person is not able to buy property and legally own it (Lynch,

2005). Stateless people are often not able to inherit (Amnesty International, 2010b). Also

insurances are a form of a legal contract and therefore it is often not possible for a

stateless person to enter into an insurance contract. Furthermore, a stateless person can

generally not act as a legal party in a conflict (Lynch, 2005). He or she cannot start a civil

court case in case of a conflict. Furthermore, as a legal consequence, a stateless person is

usually lacking both the passive and the active right to vote, resulting in no right to

participate in political processes1. Stateless people cannot benefit from protection by a


More about the consequences of lacking the right to vote in paragraph 2.4.4.


state, and are therefore not entitled to reside in any country (Kooijmans, 2002). Having no

nationality results in not being recognised by any state. This leads to not having

unconditional residence in any country as a stateless person (Usmany, 2010; Amnesty

International, 2010b). No country is obliged to give stateless people protection

(Groenendijk, 1993). A stateless person has unlike many refugees and displaced persons

no formal protection from a state, aid organisations and the UN (Lynch, 2005). Stateless

people often face forced displacement caused by lacking the right documents to stay in a

country (Lynch, 2005). Thousands of stateless persons are in prison everywhere in the

world, for not possessing a (effective) nationality. They are seen as illegal immigrants

wherever they go. Detention based on illegal residency can happen over and over again

(The Equal Rights Trust, 2010). Because no state is formally responsible for a stateless

person, stateless people faces the risk of being shuttled back and forward between states

(UNHCR, 2010a).

2.4.2 Social consequences of statelessness

The legal origin of statelessness causes many social consequences of statelessness. Social

consequences of statelessness are predominantly caused by the above-mentioned legal

consequences of statelessness, like not possessing a nationality and the inability to enter

into a (legal) contract. Stateless people have limited opportunities and chances to

education due to the fact that they have no formal legal rights. Statelessness limits in

many cases the (future) job opportunities from people. Stateless people are often legally

not allowed to work, this frequently results in poverty, poor living conditions, dependence

on help by others or illegal work often under bad conditions. Because a stateless person

cannot enter into a legal contract, it is usually not possible to have a medical insurance.

Resulting in no or limited access to medical care and medicines. This results in a bad

health situation (UNHCR, 1999a; Amnesty International, 2010b). Starting a family can be

very problematic. In many countries a stateless person cannot register a marriage, since

this is a form of a contract. If a stateless couple gets a child, the child will in a number of

cases be stateless just like the parents. Stateless people might develop coping strategies in

order to deal with the many problems and consequences they are facing. Dependence on

others in the group, or outside the group becomes very important (Physicians for Human

Rights, 2010).


Furthermore, not having the right documents will in many cases result in not being able to

get travel documents and travel. This can result in indefinite family separation with family

members living on the other side of a border or in any other country (Groenendijk, 1993).

Many stateless people are extra vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labourers, or,

especially female and children, for human trafficking, since they do not have travel

documents and any resources (Leclerc & Colville, 2007; Van Waas, 2008). Being

stateless can be a barrier to integration in the country where the stateless person is living.

Stateless persons run a high risk to be discriminated, which has a negative effect on the

establishing of their identity and integration (Kohki, 2010, April). Exclusion of a part of,

or an entire group can lead to social tension and this can lead to more exclusion and

discrimination (UNHCR, 2010b). Frustration in the above-mentioned situation can lead to

sadness, depressed feelings and feelings of worthlessness (Dokters van de Wereld, 2009).

2.4.3 Psychological consequences of statelessness

Legal and social causes and consequences of statelessness can lead to devastating longterm

psychological problems of the stateless person (Shiblak, 2006). Separation of family

members, the loss of homes and livelihood, having no future perspective caused by the

stateless status can cause a number of different psychological problems such as

depression, posttraumatic stress disorders, psychosomatic illness, anxiety and in some

cases even suicide (attempts). These psychological problems can result in a diminished

quality of life and less resistance to (other) illnesses (Global Protection Cluster Working

Group, 2007). Green and Pierce (2009) state that nationality helps to create an identity

and to instil human dignity. The lack of a nationality can lead to feelings of worthlessness.

Many stateless people feel subordinated and excluded of public life and the possibility to

lead a normal life. A stateless person will almost by definition face much discrimination

in his or her life (The Equal Rights Trust, 2010; UNHCR, 2010a). Many stateless people

fear deportation caused by lacking the legitimate documents to stay in a country, and are

worried about their future and the future of their children. Furthermore, the fear of being

detained as a foreign alien is often very stressful. And many are troubled about their

health and access to healthcare, resulting in stress and depressed feelings. Many stateless

people feel anxious and depressed, which can lead to a severe depression (Dokters van de

Wereld, 2009; Leclerc & Colville, 2007). The next sub-paragraph will present the fourth

category of consequences of statelessness.


2.4.4 Political consequences of statelessness

The above-mentioned legal, social and psychological inferences and consequences of

statelessness are severe. Political change is needed to diminish or solve the problems and

consequences of statelessness. Therefore, political decisions are necessary to change and

comply the law. The chances that this will happen are strongly reduced since, as a legal

consequence of statelessness, a stateless person has no formal legal rights and therefore

no active or passive right to vote (Green & Pierce, 2009). Being stateless is characterised

by the inability to enjoy a broad range of rights and facilities, but also by exclusion of

privileges like voting, joining a political party and starting one (UNHCR, 1999a). With

little chances to education and work, stateless communities are exposed to political

manipulation, exploitation and poverty (Shiblak, 2006). One of the main sources of

statelessness, as mentioned in paragraph 2.3, states that statelessness is often caused by

deprivation of a nationality. This frequently happens to excluded ethnic, national or

political groups and communities.

To end or change an unjust situation, one would in most cases, under normal

circumstances, vote for a party that represents a change, or start a political party or

pressure group. Without stateless people being represented by political pressure groups or

political parties, the chances of a change in the situation of stateless people are reduced

significantly. This might lead to frustration. Many stateless people feel excluded and

discriminated, resulting in despair and frustration (UNHCR, 2010a). Frustration caused by

the failure of change in the situation to occur, suppression, a perceived lack of interest by

others and impotence over the situation might lead to unrest and turmoil, violent

demonstrations, armed resistance and the eventually possibly to the forming of terrorist

groups. As can be seen by, for example, a group of stateless Rohingya in Burma, who

picked up arms several times in the last decades to fight for a change in their hopeless

stateless situation (UNHCR, 1999b). Stateless people might feel that there are no other

(legal) options to influence political decisions on their situation.

2.5 Conclusion

Statelessness is a long existing phenomenon, spread over the whole world and affecting

many people on every continent. Although everyone has according to international law

the right to a nationality, and in spite of the many efforts that have been made to diminish


and regulate the problems of statelessness, statelessness is still a widespread and alive

problem for millions of people. Dozens of covenants and conventions have been made

and signed by many states to deal with this problem. However, even if the first two main

sources that cause statelessness will be solved, states will keep continuing to change

shape and borders and therefore will continue to make people stateless in the process. The

consequences stateless people are facing are very serious. Many of the above-mentioned

consequences of statelessness have causal relationships. Legal inferences of statelessness

can cause social and psychological consequences and problems. Legal, social and political

consequences of statelessness often eventually lead to discrimination, exclusion,

exploitation and political manipulation. In many cases this leads to frustration. Frustration

can lead to political implications as (violent) demonstrations, riots, armed resistance and

possibly the forming of terrorist groups in order to force a change in the legal position of

stateless people. Political consequences of statelessness might relate and influence legal

consequences of statelessness in this way. The following illustration presents in a

graphical representation the relations of the inferences and consequences of statelessness:

Illustration 1. Relations of causes and consequences of statelessness

It is to be expected that these consequences will be found in the Syrian context. The next

chapter will first introduce Syria, Kurds and Syrian Kurds.


3. Syrian Kurds

This chapter introduces Syria, Kurds and Syrian Kurds. First we will start with a short

introduction on Syria in which a historical and political overview will be given, followed

by quick scan on the human rights situation in Syria and lastly some information on the

economy and population information. Then we will discuss Kurdish history in the

Middle-Eastern region, followed by a brief historical overview on Kurds in Syria. Finally

statelessness of Syrian Kurds will be addressed, before part 2 of this thesis will deal with

the empirical part of this thesis.

3.1 Syria

After the First World War, Syria came under French mandate. It took until 1946 before

Syria became independent. It was by then politically still very unstable. Four coups d’état

occurred in the first five years of independence, of which the first three happened within a

period of 10 months. Syria was together with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq part in the

Arab-Israeli war in 1948 (Rabil, 2003). In 1958 the United Arabic Republic was formed

with the merger of Syria and Egypt, to last until 1961 when Syria became the Syrian Arab

Republic again. The relation with Israel remained highly unstable, resulting in a state of

emergency since 1963, based on the Syrian Emergency Law. During the Six-Day War in

1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. Israel and Syria are technically in a state of

war ever since, and the state of emergency is still in force today.

In 1970 a member of the socialist and Arab nationalist Ba’th party, Hafiz al-Asad, seized

power with a coup d’état and brought stability to Syria. He remained Syria’s president for

the next 30 years. It was well known that Hafiz wanted his eldest son Basil to succeed

him after his death, but Basil died in a car crash in 1994 (Woog, 2009). After Hafiz’s

death in June 2000, his other son, Bashar al-Asad, was approved as president of Syria. In

May 2007 Bashar was re-elected to a second term of seven years as president of Syria

(U.S. State Department, 2010; George, 2003; Woog, 2009). Both in 2000 and in 2007

Bashar al-Asad did not had any opponents during the elections. In 2007 he won the

elections with 97,63 % of the votes (George, 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2010; Syrian

Arab News Agency, 2007). Syria is de facto a single-party state and an authoritarian

republic under the military dominated Arab socialist Ba’th party (U.S. State Department,

2010; George, 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2010; Woog, 2009). Human Rights Watch


and Amnesty International are very concerned about the human rights situation in Syria

(Human Rights Watch, 2010; Amnesty International, 2010a; Amnesty International,


As a reaction to the death of Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, a civil society movement, known as

the ‘Damascus Spring’, rose up. Political, social, economical and human right reforms

were demanded and discussed in many forums and (private) meetings, consisting of

lawyers, journalists, political party leaders, members of the parliament, philosophers,

artists, businessmen and many more. Kurdish initiatives arose and Kurdish cultural

centres got established. This was widely seen as a time of change. The highpoint of the

uprising was end 2000 when the infamous Mazzeh prison was shut down and hundreds of

political prisoners were released (Yildiz, 2005; George, 2003; Human Rights Watch,

2010). By mid 2001 the newly elected Bashar al-Asad reacted with repressive measures,

closing down many of the social initiatives and arresting many of its members. From then

on prisons were filled again with political prisoners and human rights activists (Human

Rights Watch, 2010). George (2003) named this political reversal the ‘Damascus Winter’.

The above-mentioned Emergency Law, already in force since 48 years, has postponed

most fundamental constitutional protection for Syrians. Syria is officially a democracy,

but in practice it is an authoritarian regime in which the population does not has the right

to change their government. Political opposition to the president is not allowed. The

Syrian intelligence service, the mukhabarat, is very active and much feared in Syria (U.S.

State Department, 2010; Human Rights Watch, 2010). The authoritarian Syrian state is

also often referred to as the ‘mukhabarat state’ since the mukhabarat has a lot of power in

Syria (Rathmell, 1996). There is no absolute freedom of expression and association in

Syria. The government censors many newspapers, Internet sites and other news sources,

and the media that are allowed is state controlled (Amnesty International, 2010a; U.S.

State Department, 2010; George, 2003; Tejel, 2009).

The long lasting state of emergency gives the security forces, the mukhabarat, a lot of

power to arrest and detain people without an arrest warrant. Thousands of people have

been arrested arbitrarily over the last years and many faced long prison sentences, solely

for the exercise of their human rights. Prolonged incommunicado detention,

‘disappearances’ and unfair trials are happening on a frequent base. Torture and other

forms of ill treatment are often reported, sometimes resulting in death. Syria’s prisons are


filled with human rights activists, political prisoners, journalist and many others (Amnesty

International, 2010a; Human Right Watch, 2010; Amnesty International, 2005; George,

2003). The special trial room which was set up under the Emergency Law to deal with

political and state security cases, does not meet international standards for fair trials

(Amnesty International, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2009b). Furthermore there is

widespread impunity for members of the security forces, the mukhabarat, that are

suspected of continuing human right violations (Amnesty International, 2005; U.S. State

Department, 2010).

Despite Syria’s authoritarian and repressive nature, it is a relatively stable country with a

fairly steady economy. Syria holds a middle position between South Africa and Tajikistan

on the Human Development Index from the United Nations, where it is located on the

111th position out of 169 countries (United Nations Development Program, 2010).

Agriculture, mining, industry and tourism are Syria’s main sources of income (George,

2003) In July 2010 the population of Syria consisted of 21,7 million people,

approximately 88 % Arabs, 10 % Kurds en about 2 % Armenians, Palestinians and others2

(U.S. State Department, 2010). There is however some indistinctness over the exact

percentages and numbers of minority groups in Syria (Ylidiz, 2005; Lynch & Ali, 2006).

The vast majority of Syrians is Sunni Muslim, but a minority of about 10% is Christian.

Furthermore, there are Alawi’s, Druze and very small minorities of Jews and Yezidi’s in

Syria (U.S. State Department, 2010).

3.2 Kurds

Kurdistan, ‘land of the Kurds’, can be seen as world’s largest nation without a state. The

borders of Kurdistan are not definite and fixed, and territorial claims may vary between

different organisations, groups and individuals. As can be seen in see map 1, the biggest

parts of Kurdistan are located in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and smaller parts are found in

Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan (Yildiz, 2005; Chaliand, 1982).


More about percentages of Syrian Kurdish population in paragraph 3.3.


Map 1. : Map of Kurdistan and the Middle Eastern region (Yildiz, 2005)

There is not one general Kurdish language but there are several Kurdish dialects, which

are spoken in different Kurdish areas (Amain & Kielstra, 1992). Kurds possess a distinct

(regional) language, history, culture and many Kurds feel a strong national identity,

although several Kurds adapted partly to the country they live in. It is believed that the

Kurds have settled over 4000 years ago in the areas comprising present Kurdistan.

Traditionally Kurds have been farming and agriculturally producing. Stockbreeding has

been the most important economic activity until the late 19th century. Nomadic Kurds

were going around with flocks of sheep and goats. Kurdish areas are agriculturally and

mineral rich. Cotton, tobacco, grain, copper, chrome, iron, lignite and even oil has been

found in Kurdish areas (Amain & Kielstra, 1992; Yildiz, 2005). A lot of the suppression

of Kurds and the Arabisation, Turkification and Islamification of Kurdish areas can

possibly be attributed to economic considerations (Yildiz, 2005; Tejel, 2009; Amain &

Kielstra, 1992).

There are no exact numbers of the total Kurdish population. The absence of reliable

figures of the Kurdish population is marked by political considerations. States with

Kurdish minority groups might benefit from underestimation of the population figures and

Kurdish nationalist groups may exaggerate the numbers of the population in their benefit.


Population estimations of Kurds vary between 24 and 27 million to over 30 million or

more (Yildiz, 2005). The majority of Kurds today is Muslim, approximately three fifth,

although many still see the Islam as the religion of their oppressors. Further, there are

smaller Kurdish religious groups found in different areas of Kurdistan; the Alevi’s in

central Kurdistan, the Ahl-I-Haqq in southern Kurdistan and about 2 percent Yezidi’s in

areas of Syria, Armenia and a part of Turkey. Yezidi’s have been accused of being devil

worshippers for their believe in the god Shytan. This was the basis for severe

discrimination of Yezidi’s, resulting in many Yezidi’s converting to the mainstream

Islamic religion. Finally there are small groups of Christian Kurdish communities in

Armenia and Syria. In the past there used to be a small group of Jewish Kurds in the

Kurdish region, but most of them migrated to Israel after the Second World War. Still

many of the 150.000 Kurdish Jews living in Jerusalem identify themselves as Kurdish

(Yildiz, 2005; Amain & Kielstra, 1992).

Kurds in the various countries face a lot of suppression and discrimination. They are often

denied equal rights. The next sub-paragraphs will briefly touch on the suppression of

Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq3. The historical and current situation of Kurds in Syria will

be addressed in the next paragraphs.

3.2.1 Kurds in Turkey

Turkey denies the existence of Kurds and referred to them as ‘mountain Turks’ (Amain &

Kielstra, 1992). In 1978 the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) was founded in order to give

suppressed Kurds in Turkey a voice. After the military coup in Turkey in 1980, the

suppression of the Kurds intensified. The use of the Kurdish language was forbidden,

moreover, any form of Kurdish political and cultural expression was punished severely.

As a reaction to the military regime, the PKK started an armed guerrilla struggle in

Turkey. The government reacted with creating a ‘security zone’ along the Kurdish border,

destroying thousands of Kurdish villages and forced displacement of many thousands


All the sub-paragraphs mention an estimated number op Kurds living in these counties. These numbers are

not definite, but are still currently under discussion (Yildiz, 2005). Paragraph 3.3 will deal more with the

Kurdish population number in Syria.


Kurds (Yildiz, 2005). In 1999 Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, was captured by

Turkey and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. Not long

after the PKK declared a ceasefire. The PKK had taken up arms again in 2004 after

negotiations with the Turkeys government had reached a deadlock. In 2009 a ceasefire

was declared (Tejel, 2009; Yildiz, 2005; Amain & Kielstra, 1992). There are

approximately 30 million Kurds in Turkey (Yildiz, 2005).

3.2.2 Kurds in Iraq

The Kurds in Iraq faced in 1963 an Arabisation campaign in the Kurdish regions,

especially around Kirkuk where oil was found in the ground. This campaign consisted of

the destroying of many Kurdish communities and the forced eviction and replacement of

thousands of people. The Iraqi Kurds were supported and assisted in their struggle by

Iranian Kurds. Two decades of struggle and peace agreements were followed by what

came to be known as Saddam Hussein’s al-Anfal campaign. The al-Anfal was a genocidal

campaign by which hundred thousands of Kurds were arrested and killed by the Iraqi

government and army, sometimes with the use of chemical weapons. Kurdish villages

were systematically destroyed (Yildiz, 2005). The current president of Iraq is Kurdish and

the Kurdish areas are currently respected as autonomous areas in Iraq. Today there are

about 4,2 million Kurds in Iraq (Yildiz, 2005).

3.2.3 Kurds in Iran

After the above-mentioned Iranian Kurds returned to Iran after assisting the Iraqi Kurds,

they were inspired to start their own movement. In 1967 the KPD, the Democratic Party

of Iran, launched an armed resistance movement. After the leaders were killed in battle

the movement collapsed. In later years the Iranian Kurds played a role in the uprising of

the Shah. Shortly after, the authorities declared a holy war to the Kurds and the Kurdish

regions were under military control. Therefore the Kurds in Iran wanted revenge and

played an important role in the revolution against the Shah in 1979. The Kurds suffered

badly from the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. Today the Kurdish situation in Iran is a bit

more calmed down. The Kurdish language is allowed and taught at schools in the Kurdish

areas. But Iran is still an extremely repressive state and the claim of Kurdish political

rights, critics on the Iranian government or publishing on Kurdish nationalism is still

highly illegal. Today about 5,7 million Kurds live in Iran (Yildiz, 2005).


3.3 Kurds in Syria

There are no exact numbers on Kurds in Syria due to political implications of over, - and

underestimation, but it is in general believed that Kurds comprise between 8 and 15 % of

Syria’s population (Lynch & Ali, 2006; Yildiz, 2005; Tejel, 2009). The U.S. State

Department (2010) believes that the Kurds comply of 9% of the Syrian population4. This

equals a Kurdish population of about 1.953.000 members. The Kurds are the biggest

minority group in Syria. Compared to the Kurdish areas in Turkey or Iraq, the Kurdish

areas in Syria are very small and furthermore, the Kurdish areas in Syria are not

continuous, as can be seen in map 2. The fact that the Kurdish areas in Syria are not

connecting with each other is weakening the Kurdish position in Syria compared to the

Kurdish position in the other countries (Amain & Kielstra, 1992).

Map 2. : Map of northern Syria, Kurdish areas are highlighted (Tejel, 2009).

Kurds have a nomadic history, but already in the late nineteenth century former nomadic

groups settled and developed agriculture in the north-east region of Syria. During the

1920s and 1930s many Kurds fled from Turkey to the north-eastern region of Syria to

escape Kemal Ataturk’s forces and violence to the Kurds (Yildiz, 2005, Tejel, 2009).

During the French mandate (1920-1946) the Syrian Kurds were divided between support


It is unclear if stateless Kurds are included in these counting’s.


and opposition to the French. This hindered the development of Kurdish nationalist

groups in Syria. In other countries, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, an upsurge of Kurdish

nationalism was going on (Yildiz, 2005).

Kurds in Syria have been facing long-lasting discrimination of their community and

repression of their political and cultural rights (Tejel, 2009; Yildiz, 2005). In the 1950s

Syria embraced Arab nationalism, and perceived Kurds as a threat to the unity of Arab

Syria (Human Right Watch, 2009a). In 1962 the Syrian government issued an exceptional

census in northeast Syria, in the al-Hasaka province. The immediate cause was that the

Syrian government had concerns about the number of Kurds that had entered Syria from

Turkey since the end of the Second World War. People that could not prove their

residency in Syria before 1945 faced loss of their Syrian nationality. In a very short time

spam between 120.000 and 150.000 Kurds in Syria, about 20 % of the Kurdish population

at that time, lost their Syrian nationality (Lynch, 2005; Human Right Watch, 1996; Lowe,


Since 1963, the Ba’ath party is in power and continued the promotion of Arab nationalism

in Syria. From 1965 up till 1973 they worked on the ‘Arab belt’, a military cordon of

approximately 10 to 15 kilometres deep and 375 kilometres long to separate Syria’s

Kurdistan from Turkey’s and Iraq’s Kurdistan. Arab families were encouraged and

rewarded to resettle in traditionally Kurdish areas. Farmland was expropriated from Kurds

and many Kurds were ordered to leave their villages and move to other parts of Syria

(Human Rights Watch, 2009a; Yildiz, 2005). Kurd Watch states that: “the 1962 census

must rather be understood as the first of several Arabisation measures implemented in the

1960s and 1970s” (Kurd Watch, 2010, p. 13). Although the movement of Arabs and

Kurds resulted in an effective separation of Syria’s Kurds from Kurds in Turkey and Iraq,

another important reason to implement this policy is found in a conflict with Turkey over

water (Yildiz, 2005).

Kurds suffer like many other Syrians from serious human rights violations. But they also

face identity-based discrimination. It is not allowed to speak or use the local Kurdish

dialect, Kirmanji, or to teach the Kurdish language in schools. Kurdish names are

forbidden by law, resulting in the forced renaming of cities, villages and even people.

Kurds that raise these or other Kurdish issues, like for example statelessness, face a lot of


repression and risk imprisonment on political charges usually used against Kurds

(Amnesty International, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2009a).

In May 2004 large-scale demonstrations broke out in many towns and villages after

security forces opened fire and killed 9 Kurdish soccer supporters in the north-eastern

Kurdish city Qamishli. A day after the shooting, thousands of people attended the funeral

of the 9 deaths from the day before, carrying Kurdish flags and chanting political slogans.

The police reacted strongly by opening fire again and killing and injuring more people.

Following these demonstrations, many Kurds in Qamishli were arrested. The

demonstrations and protests spread to other northern towns of Syria and to Damascus and

Aleppo. In Damascus students protested strongly and there were heavy clashes with the

police (Yildiz, 2005). Although the demonstrations were a reaction on the shooting, they

were according to Human Rights Watch (2009a) driven by anger and humiliation of the

long-lasting discrimination. This was the first time that Kurds held such massive

demonstrations in Syria (Human Rights Watch, 2009a). Not only the high numbers of

protesters, but also the fact that the demonstrations and unrest encompassed all Kurdish

areas in Syria was new, and surprised the Syrian authorities. In a reaction to the unrest

among Syrian Kurds, Turkish and Iraqi Kurds showed their solidarity by organising

demonstrations in support with the Syrian Kurds (Kurd Watch, 2009; Tejel, 2009).

Amnesty International (2005) and Human Rights Watch (2010) state that at least 36

people have been killed, over 160 injured and more than 2000 people got arrested in the

wake of this event.

Although president Bashar al-Asad said in 2005 that times would change in the future for

freedom for political parties, Syria is still today effectively a one-party state (Human

Rights Watch, 2010; Yildiz, 2005). No other parties than the ruling Ba’th party and the

seven coalition parties that are allowed under the Progressive National Front (PNF) are

permitted to exist. No law exists in Syria to govern political parties. Although beside the

Ba’th party and the PNF all political activity is illegal, still 13 Kurdish political parties

operate covertly in Syria (Yildiz, 2005; Tejel, 2009). None of the party’s aims for Kurdish

autonomy or a Kurdish state, they only present Kurdish demands, represent Kurds and

seek for Kurdish recognition in Syria. Since all political activity is illegal, Kurdish

political activity in public is limited to lobby work, writing letters to the president about

for example recent arrests, and sometimes organising demonstrations. People fear the

secret service, mukhabarat, and arrests for political activities (Yildiz, 2005). In stead, the


parties operate more in the private sphere of life. Cultural and educational work like

Kurdish language lessons and Kurdish history lessons, sport events, debates and other

cultural events are part of the core work of the Kurdish parties (Yildiz, 2005). Many high

placed members and party leaders of Kurdish political parties have been arrested and

imprisoned, especially after the uprisings in 2004 the authorities have been very active

against Kurdish leaders (Human Rights Watch, 2009a). The next paragraph will deal

more in depth with the above-mentioned statelessness resulting from the 1962 census.

3.4 Statelessness of Syrian Kurds

A special census, following Decree no. 93, was held on the 5th of October 1962. The

census, which is considered highly controversial by human rights organisations, was held

in just one day and only in the predominantly al-Hasakah province in the north-east of

Syria. The inhabitants of the al-Hasakah province did not get a prior warning that the

census would take place. People that were not present in Syria had only fifteen days time

to present them selves to fill out the appropriate forms (Yildiz, 2005; Human Right

Watch, 2009; Kurd Watch, 2010). People had to proof that they were residing in Syria

before 1945, if they could not prove their residency in Syria they faced loss of their Syrian


There was much indistinctness and numerous irregularities were reported during the

census (Human Right Watch, 2009). The allocation and the refusal of the Syrian

nationality often happened in an arbitrary way. Brothers of the same family were

classified differently, parents became stateless while their children remained Syrian or

vice versa. People born in Syria many years before 1945 lost their Syrian nationality

while others who bribed the officials kept their Syrian nationality (Human Right Watch,

1996). Many people did not have valid evidence or could not prove their long residency in

Syria in just one day. Furthermore, there was also a small group of people that

deliberately avoided participation in the census to avoid recruitment in the army. After the

1962 census the Syrian government created 3 categories of Kurds (Yildiz, 2005):

Kurds with the Syrian nationality

Kurds that proved their Syrian nationality by showing evidence of residency in Syria

before 1945.



Kurds that could not prove their Syrian residency (fast enough) were registered as

‘foreigner’, ajnabi in Arabic. They were seen as illegal immigrants and got a red identity

paper that says ‘foreigner’.


Kurds that did, deliberately or unintentionally, not take part in the census became known

as ‘unregistered’, maktoum in Arabic, even if they did held Syrian nationality before the

census. Maktoums are not registered in Syria and do not posses an identity paper.

Both the second and the third category are examples of de jure statelessness, because the

Syrian nationality was revoked. Ajnabis and maktoums do technically not posses any

nationality. The previous paragraph already mentioned that 20% of the total number of

Kurds in 1962 lost their Syrian nationality, equalling about 120.000 to 150.000 Kurds

(Human Rights Watch, 1996). There are no reliable official records of the number of

stateless Kurds today in Syria, but since 1962 this number has grown to an estimated

number between 200.000 and 360.000. These are both ajnabi and maktoum (Amnesty

International, 2005). According to Lowe (2006) in 2004 about 200.000 registered ajnabi

and between 80.000 and 100.000 unregistered maktoum were living in Syria. The number

grew because the children of stateless men are often themselves considered stateless and

because of natural population increase.5 If nothing changes, this number will keep

growing in the near future (Human Right Watch, 2009; Lowe, 2006; Lynch & Ali, 2006;

Kurd Watch, 2010; Human Rights Watch, 1996).

3.5 Conclusion

Kurds can be found in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan and can be

considered a people without a nation. Kurds have been, and in many cases still are, facing

a lot of repression from the local authorities. Kurds in Syria comprise of approximately

10% of the total Syrian population. Syria can be seen as a single-party state and an

authoritarian republic under the military dominated Arab socialist Ba’th party. Human

rights violations are common in Syria. National and international human rights


More on stateless statuses in chapter 5.1


organisations wrote many reports and repeatedly expressed their concerns about the

human rights situation in Syria. Many human rights activists, lawyers, bloggers, political

activists, journalists and students, as well as Kurdish leaders and activists are imprisoned

on vague charges and convictions.

A significant number of the Kurds in Syria are de jure stateless, caused by a census in

1962 that resulted in hundred thousands stateless people. Part 2 of this thesis will deal

with the consequences of statelessness for Syrian Kurds. Based on interview material, the

above-mentioned theoretical assumptions will be tested and analysed. The field data will

give more insight to the consequences of statelessness for Syrian Kurds. Before

discussing the field data, the methodological considerations will be presented in the third



Part 2


4. Methodology

This chapter outlines the methodological choices and decisions made in this thesis and

will give accountability over the choices made. In the next paragraphs and sub-paragraphs

the methods of data collection and analysis techniques will be presented, while the last

paragraph and sub-paragraphs will deal with ethical dilemmas, limitations and challenges.

4.1 From literature study to fieldwork study

In order to answer the research question it was important to find the most appropriate

research methods for this research. I started with a preliminary literature study. This gave

some insight into the phenomenon of statelessness and statelessness in Syria, but none of

the books, articles and reports I studied could answer the research question as presented

above. Reports on Syria were often more general about the human rights situation in Syria

or on Kurds in Syria, but not specifically on statelessness in Syria (Austrian Red Cross &

Danish Immigration Service, 2010; De Schutter, 2010; Human Rights Watch, 2010;

United States Institute of Peace, 2009; Kurd Watch, 2009; Human Rights Watch, 2009a;

Human Rights Watch, 2007; Lowe, 2006; Amnesty International, 2005; Syrian Human

Rights Committee, 2001). Other reports dealt with statelessness, but not with the Syrian

situation (Usmany, 2010; Bliz & Lynch, 2009; Dokters van de Wereld, 2009; Lynch,

2005). And the reports that were specifically about statelessness in Syria did not have the

same focus as the research question in this thesis (Kurd Watch, 2010; Lynch & Ali, 2006;

Human Rights Watch, 1996). In addition, some literature seemed to be contradictory or

outdated. I tried to use the most reliable literature. At the core of this thesis are two

important scholar publications on statelessness in Syria (Tejel, 2009; Yildiz, 2005),

several of the above-mentioned reports from human rights focussed non-governmental

organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, a number of United

Nations conventions and publications, several articles from journals and some websites.

Furthermore, information and publications of other human rights groups, Kurdish lobby

groups and other non-governmental organisations has been used, however, never as the

only source, solely when the information was supported by other ‘harder’ sources.

In order to get a closer answer to the research question it was found necessary to try and

find (former) stateless Kurds from Syria and other experts to interview them and gain first

hand knowledge on the current situation of stateless Kurds in Syria. It proved to be


difficult to find stateless Syrian Kurdish respondents in the Netherlands. Slowly it became

clear that I would have to travel to Syria and conduct the interviews there, on the spot.

Another advantage of travelling to Syria was that I could observe the local conditions.

The following paragraphs will give more insight to the fieldwork details.

4.2 Fieldwork areas

The research population for this study consists of stateless Syrian Kurds. Therefore

interviews with stateless Kurds, Kurds and experts have been conducted in Syria, and in

some cases in the Netherlands and Belgium. Although Syria can be called a police state

ruled under Emergency Law for 48 years, the country is relatively stable and ruled by the

same president for almost 11 years now. Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father who had

been in power for 30 years. Despite the relatively stable situation of the country, many

security issues had to be taken into account. Before travelling to Syria many gatekeepers

warned me about the sensitivity of the topic of statelessness in Syria and about the

possible reactions this could elicit from the Syrian authorities. This ranged from negative

consequences for respondents, to police questionings and investigations on respondents

and me, to be expelled from the country and possibly being placed on a black list.

Some areas in Syria were more problematic to visit and conduct interviews for this

research then others. The already earlier mentioned Kurdish region of Qamishli is the

place were most stateless Kurds are found in Syria, yet also the place with the most

warnings concerning safety for respondents and myself. Due to security reasons it was not

possible to stay very long in Qamishli, consequently the research has been carried out in

several places in Syria. One can find relatively big groups of migrated stateless Kurds in

Damascus and Aleppo. Therefore interviews have been held in Qamishli, as well as in

Damascus, Zor Ava and Aleppo. Both in Zor Ava and in Qamishli I attracted a lot of

attention, mainly because these are no places where Westerners usually come. To reduce

risks for respondents and myself and to respect ethical considerations, it was not possible

to stay there very long in these places. Therefore, I was not able to conduct a lot of

interviews in Qamishli and Zor Ava.

4.3 Research period

The data collection took place in a period of one month, from the 3rd of October to the 3rd

of November 2010. When I booked my ticket, I did not realise that the 5th of October is


the day that, 48 years ago, the census took place that caused the high numbers of

statelessness in Syria today. This is an important date for stateless Kurds in Syria.

Traditionally some Kurdish political parties present reports about the distressing situation

of the stateless to the president in Damascus. Because of the unintended good timing I

could start interviewing respondents from the Qamishli region immediately after arriving

in Syria. These Kurds came to Damascus especially for this day.

Although one month was a very short period to do fieldwork, I also realise that this might

be the longest feasible time possible for this type of research in Syria. Research periods in

other reports used in this thesis are usually one to two weeks (Austrian Red Cross &

Danish Immigration Service, 2010; De Schutter, 2010). Moreover, some reported that

there was no access to the country at all and interviews were conducted via others inside

Syria and outside Syria or via the use of telephone (Human Rights Watch, 2009a; Human

Rights Watch, 2009b). Furthermore, many people warned me for the possible

consequences of researching statelessness in Syria. If the authorities would find out about

the research topic, this could result in a refusal of visa extension, being expelled from the

country or possibly being placed on a blacklist and therefore not be allowed to enter the

country in the future. Given the circumstances, one month was a fairly good period to do

fieldwork in Syria.

4.4 Sampling

Because of the sensitivity of the research topic and therefore possible safety risk, but also

because of the nature of the research question, I chose to use the qualitative snowball

method to reach respondents to conduct interviews with. The snowball method is a nonrandom

sampling method, often used in qualitative research. The snowball method

implies that every respondent will be asked if he or she knows other people that fit the

research population who may be willing to be interviewed (Bijleveld, 2006; Seale &

Filmer, 2001). This method is very suitable for a population with an unknown sampling

frame and for populations who are to some extent stigmatized (Bijleveld, 2006). Stateless

Kurds are a marginalised group that, as mentioned before, face a lot of repression by the

Syrian state. The snowball method is an adequate method to reach respondents based on

trust who otherwise may not be found or refuse to be interviewed (Seale & Filmer, 2001;

De Jong, 2007; Van Wijk, 2007).


To realise wide population coverage it was important to start with several different zerostage

respondents (Bijleveld, 2006). To accomplish this I used my personal network to get

in contact with Syrians and Kurds. It came as a surprise to me that I had so many contacts

relating to Kurds, Syrians and stateless persons. Within three weeks I collected 31 contact

details of Kurds, Syrians and some stateless Syrian Kurds. I spoke with friends and

acquaintances that had been in Syria before. Furthermore, I had contact with journalists

and non-governmental organisations that work on human rights and/or statelessness in

Syria, social scientists and human rights experts. Lastly I had a lot of contact with a

number of Kurdish organisations in several countries and I regularly visited a Kurdish

Centre in Amsterdam. Before I left to Syria I spent already many days with Kurds and

Syrians, and had some nice Kurdish dishes. All these efforts resulted in a list with contact

details of Syrians, Kurds and experts that were willing to help me after my arrival in Syria

and a varied list with zero-stage respondents spread over the entire country. The snowball

method used in this research is sensitive to the choice of zero-stage respondents

(Bijleveld, 2006). People with many friends, or politically outspoken people are more

likely to be included in the sample than more isolated people. It happened twice that via

my network I ended up at the same zero-stage respondent; one human rights activist and

one Kurdish political party member. It is plausible that my choice of zero-stage

respondents has influenced the sample.

4.5 Interviewing

At arrival in Syria I bought myself a Syrian mobile telephone to be able to get and stay in

contact with future respondents. Respondents gave me their phone numbers and that of

their friends more easily than I expected and I am used to. All the interview appointments

were made over the phone. Respondents were very punctual. I never had to wait for a

respondent. If I would have an interview appointment at 9:00, I would often receive a

phone call at 8:55 to hear were I was because a respondent was waiting for me.

Although I had many talks and email, - and phone contact with Syrians, Kurds and

experts who work on related topics before I left to Syria, I do not consider these as

interviews. However, these talks and email, - and phone conversations have been very

helpful in getting more contextual information and sometimes gave me new perspectives

and ideas. In total 14 in-dept interviews have been held, from which 11 in Syria. The

following table gives an overview on how many interviews were conducted in which


countries with which respondent. To make sure no respondent can be traced, every

respondent got a code consisting of the letter R and a number.

Table 1. Respondents, status and location

In Syria two long interviews were held with Kurds who were not stateless, but had a lot to

tell about this topic. Furthermore, two interviews were held with experts who were nor

stateless, nor Kurdish, but because of their work or personal interest complemented the

research. Out of a total of fourteen interviews, six respondents were interviewed two

times to be able to talk longer and go more in-depth. The interviews were unstructured in

nature. I did work with a topic list, which consisted of topics divided in the four main

categories of consequences of statelessness stemming from the literature. But out of safety

concerns to the respondents I never brought this list to an interview6. I memorised all the

topics and made sure that all topics were talked about during an interview. The order of

the topics was less important and depended on how an interview went. My own role was

non-directive. I asked some questions and let people talk. Occasionally this went off-topic

but I did not immediately intervene. Sometimes I would ask more about a topic a

respondent talked about, to clarify ambiguities and to get to the questions of the topic list.

Some interviews were long and lasted several hours, others were shorter, up to an hour.

On average an interview took about two and a half hours.

Before starting an interview I explained the aim of the research. I always told respondents

who I was and why I wanted to interview them. I was always clear about the goal of the


See appendix 1. for the topic list.


research. I also always stressed the point that I was very concerned about their situation

but that I am not capable of solving their problems even though I would very much like

to. I felt this was very important, and appreciated, to avoid false expectations or double

agendas. Furthermore, respondents were asked (again) if they wanted to cooperate. Great

emphasis was placed on the anonymity of respondents. All possible interviewees were

willing to cooperate, but some reassured their anonymity. No one refused, only one

respondent seemed to not be very comfortable and just did not say that much. It is

plausible that the high participation rate is due to the sampling method. Potential

respondents were asked because others assumed that they might be willing to cooperate.

The safety of respondents was very important. To reduce the risk of problems with the

authorities for respondents, I never used any recording devices. Nor did I take notes

during interviews. This had mainly two reasons. First, to not leave traces to respondents

or to the research topic during potential police and intelligence service control. Second, it

created an unconstrained, informal and relaxed atmosphere in which the respondent

would not primarily felt questioned. After an interview I would transcript the data on my

own laptop, in which I created a safe, encrypted ‘hidden’ file where I stored everything

related to my research.

4.5.1 Language

The interviews conducted in the Netherlands were held in Dutch. The interview

conducted in Belgium was held with the help of a friend of the respondent who translated

from Kurdish to Dutch/Flemish. Before I left to Syria I could nor speak, nor write nor

read any Arabic, apart from the most basic words and sentences. Therefore I attended an

intensive Arabic language course of 6 to 8 hours a day during the first week after my

arrival in Syria. In this first week I strongly focused on my language lessons, networking

and starting some interviews. The Arabic language course helped me in understanding a

little bit of the (written) language, but also made me feel more secure in conversations in

Syria. Although my Arabic skills were very basic, many of the respondents showed their

enthusiasm and appreciation for my efforts and interest in their language. Some of the

respondents taught me some words in Kurdish, but since Kurdish is a forbidden language

in the public space in Syria, most respondents were reserved about me teaching me

Kurdish. I was by far not able to have a real conversation in neither Arabic nor Kurdish,

therefore the interviews have been held in English. Some of the respondents in Syria


spoke English well enough to conduct the interviews in English. Other respondents used a

dictionary in some cases, or a little pocket computer with translation function. In four

cases I worked with an external person that could function as a translator. Two times an

independent documentary maker from Damascus, who works on sensitive subjects in the

Syrian society, helped translating. An art gallery owner who functioned as a gatekeeper

had been translating another time. And lastly, my Arabic teacher has been translating

during one interview. These translations were from Arabic to English. During two

interviews one of the other respondents has been translating from Kurdish to English.

None of the people who translated were professional interpreters. This might have

influenced the interviews in some cases.

Interviewing in another language than my own was very challenging. Besides, both the

interviews held in English and the ones held with the help of a translator can be biased

caused by language, - and cultural differences. Even when the interviewee, the translator

and I myself believed we understood each other, there was a high chance that one link in

the conversation led to a different answer then possibly intended. A striking example in

this research was that respondents and translators were not always familiar with the words

‘stateless’ and ‘statelessness’. Several times this was not understood at all. As explained

in chapter three, in Syria there are two categories of statelessness, ajnabi and maktoum.

Syrians are familiar with these terms instead of ‘stateless’. As soon as these wording was

used every participant in the conversation understood what it was about.

4.6 (Partly participant) Observation

Observation is a commonly used method in qualitative research. Participant observation is

a form of observation where the observer takes part into the field that he or she is

observing. This leads to observations from population member perspectives (Flick, 2006).

The philosophy of participant observation is according to Bijleveld (2006) that certain

experiences can be understood only by undergoing it your self. Participant observation

usually consists of living with the research subjects for a longer period of time and

participating in their lives (Flick, 2006; Bijleveld, 2006). For my research, however, I did

not live with any respondents in Syria. Nevertheless, I did conduct unstructured

observations for this thesis to place stories of respondents in a context and to clarify

things that were said. To a certain extent the observations can be called ‘partly

participant’. I came in respondent’s houses, met their (extended) families and friends,


staid over for big Kurdish dinners, drank many cups of tea and Kurdish coffee and a lot of

Kurdish candies and cookies. I was showed around in towns and neighbourhoods, and

occasionally I staid over for the night with a big Kurdish family. This gave me more

insight in respondent’s lives outside of an interview setting. For example, when the

children, cousins and nieces of a respondent came home for dinner and started talking

enthusiastically about their education and what job they wanted later, I saw the faces of

the adults in the room looking more and more sad. I realised these children could never

get these jobs because of their legal status.

Many times it was offered to stay over for the night with a respondent and his or her

family, but most of the times I rejected the offer and explained my thoughts about their

security. Especially in the eastern region I decided to sleep in a hotel and keep the receipt

of the hotel. When later the police questioned me, I was very glad I stayed at a hotel and I

could prove it. Unfortunately this was safety wise the best decision. Even though,

experiences with the police and the mukhabarat are part of the experience. By sometimes

feeling threats and fear for the police and mukhabarat, I experienced a little bit of what

most respondents experience frequently in their life.

4.7 Analysis

The interview and observation material is analysed in order to draw conclusion and

discover relations. Analysing can be seen as the reducing, summarising and finally

categorising of an amount of raw data (Boeije, 2005). The raw data obtained from the

fieldwork is reduced into conceptual categories. First the four themes that were derived

from the literature on statelessness have been coded with coloured markers in the

transcripts. Other striking themes and topics have been coloured with another colour. The

transcription of the interviews took place in Syria, but the coding happened in

Amsterdam, after all interviews were conducted. The coding resulted in a number of

themes and categories that are presented and supported in chapter five by quotes from the

transcripts. Possible links, patterns and relations will be presented in the next chapter.

4.8 Research ethics, challenges and limitations

Every researcher has to deal with research ethics, challenges and certain limitations. But

while doing research in another country than your own, a researcher will have to deal with

other, and possibly more challenges and limitations. Cultural sensitivities have to be taken


into account and in some cases security is more of an issue than when researching in ones

own country. This paragraph will deal with these issues.

4.8.1 Ethical dilemmas

A very important research ethic, that especially had to be taken into account in this

research, was to anticipate on possible harm and risks for others (Mertus, 2009).

Consequently, steps had to be taken to minimize these risks. This made it essential to

operate low profile and deliberately avoid public attention. As already stated above,

before starting an interview, informed consent was asked to the respondents and a detailed

explanation about anonymity was given. Furthermore safety was always discussed. I

always asked a respondent on forehand what would be the best and safest place to conduct

the interview, not to create an uncomfortable situation and unsafe situation for the


Almost every respondent, expert and gatekeeper gave warnings for the mukhabarat, the

intelligence service of the Syrian authorities. The mukhabarat is said to be very active.

Many people are said to be working for the mukhabarat besides their normal job.

Furthermore, respondents stressed that a lot of people are forced to give information about

other people, or work as informants in exchange of a small fee (R9, R12). The risks of

being ‘caught’ by (an informant of) the mukhabarat were especially high for respondents.

People in Syria that work on human rights, are critical to their government or do not

behave in any other way exactly as the government wants them to, risk repeated police

questioning, fines, humiliation and even prison sentence (Human Rights Watch, 2010;

Amnesty International, 2005; Syrian Human Rights Committee, 2001). To eliminate the

dangers of being ‘caught’ as a researcher working on a ‘forbidden’ subject, and especially

to eliminate the risks for respondents in case interview material would be detected by the

police, everything related to the interviews and all other material related to the research

has been saved on a ‘hidden’ and encrypted location on my laptop.

One time a gatekeeper told me at my arrival in a hotel lobby where an interview was

scheduled, that two men of the mukhabarat were present in the lobby. This caused

nervousness with the respondent and the translator. We had to ‘hide’ in a place were the

mukhabarat could not see us. The two men stayed over an hour and all this time we could

not talk. After one and a half hour we went to another location to do the interview. The

presence of the intelligence service might have influenced the conversation, but it also



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