Clarifying the citizenship decree for Kurds in Syria

There seems to be a lot of misinformation and confusion regarding the recent decree (No. 49) granting citizenship to some Kurds in Syria. Who are the Kurds involved? How many are there? What does this mean for them? What about the ones who weren’t included in the decree? Many questions.

The Kurds who were granted citizenship were ‘registered stateless Kurds’ (in Arabic they were referred to as ‘foreigners’, ajanib). They were basically third-class inhabitants in Syria. With the citizenship, they move from third-class inhabitants to second-class citizens with the rest of the Kurds in Syria who are already citizens. However, they will now be able to vote, own property, and obtain jobs in the public sector.

Why would citizenship only give them second-class status?

The Syrian Arab Republic grants ‘Syrian Arab’ citizenship. This is embedded in the constitution of the country; it is the Syrian Ba’athist ideology of ‘Arab unity.’ If you are not ethnically an Arab, it doesn’t matter. You get ‘Syrian Arab’ citizenship, regardless.

Therefore, as a Kurd, you do not have the same rights as the country’s Arab citizenry. It is constitutionally impossible.

So when rights organisations make statements like: ‘We hope that [the Kurds] will now be able to enjoy all of their human rights as equals, free from discrimination’ they obviously do not understand the situation in Syria for the Kurds. That statement was issued by the Equal Rights Trust.

The current Syrian Constitution was ratified in 1973. The constitution defines the ‘Arab Syrian region’ as part of the Arab homeland (Article 1.2); the ‘people’ of the Arab Syrian region as part of the Arab nation (Article 1.3); Arabic as the official language (Article 4); and the Socialist Arab Ba’ath Party as the leading party in society and the State heading a ‘progressive patriotic front committed to the unification of the strengths of the masses of the people in the service of the objects of the Arab nation’ (Article 8).

Protester in Qamişlo

In this context, it is clear that there is no room for Kurds to be Kurdish citizens in the Syrian Arab Republic and enjoy equality with Arabs. They must, in effect, distance themselves from their Kurdish identity. There is no education in Kurdish. Kurds are routinely imprisoned for any attempts at expressing their Kurdish identity, whether in writing or through celebrations. There is no media in Kurdish. There are no legal venues for Kurds to be Kurds. What exists is constitutionally mandated assimilation into Arab culture. The sign held up in the photo above best captures this. It reads, ‘Returning of citizenship will not end my suffering.’

So, to get back to the ajanib, the ones who through presidential decree are now ‘Syrian Arab’ citizens. Some 120,000 Kurds (about 20% of the Kurdish population at that time) were stripped of their citizenship rights in 1962 after a one-day census in the Hasakeh region deemed them illegal immigrants.

Decree No. 93 (the special census) was implemented on October 5, 1962. The driving force behind the census decree, says a report from KurdWatch, was Sa’id al-Sayyid, the governor of the Hasakeh province at the time. Al-Sayyid had been urging the government to carry out a census in al-Hasakeh for quite some time.

In his memoirs, al-Sayyid describes himself as a ‘staunch Arab nationalist’, whose sole life goal was ‘the unity of all Arabs.’ His justification for the denaturalisation that followed the census was that the ‘illegal invasion of the Kurds into Syria’ was a ‘conspiracy with the goal of establishing non-Arab ethnic groups within the Syrian crude-oil triangle.’ The phrase ‘crude-oil triangle’ refers to the fact that in 1962, mid-sized European and American oil companies began to compete for the extraction of oil found in al-Hasakeh province. He further stated that ‘the migration of Turkish Kurds to Syria represents a great danger for the security of Arab Syria’ and stressed that ‘the distribution of land is not arbitrarily made to every greedy person who happens to come along, but follows very concrete, fixed principles. Only citizens may be considered. Foreigners have no claim on the land to be distributed.’

From this we may conclude that part of the rationale for the census was to deprive Kurds in the area from obtaining land. Once stripped of their citizenship, their land was confiscated and used for the resettlement of displaced Arabs.

Individuals not entered in the register of Syrian Arabs as a result of the census evaluation were registered as ajanib, or foreigners. These 120,000 Kurds were then given a piece of paper which stated: ‘His name was not on the registration lists of Syrian Arabs specific to Hasaka.’

Click for larger view

The other group of stateless Kurds, those who, for whatever reason, were not registered as foreigners, became the maktumin. They received neither citizenship nor registration as ajanib. Maktumin in Arabic comes from the Arabic verb ‘katama’, to conceal, hide, or suppress. They are legally non-existent.

The Syrian government maintains that many of the maktumin entered Syria illegally after the census. Others suggest that many Kurds at the time chose not to participate in the census. Many maktumin today are children and grandchildren of the original maktumin. Also, the children of a male maktum married to a foreigner or even a citizen will always be maktumin. The practice that children are born maktumin (or ajanib for that matter) violates Article 3 Paragraph C of the Syrian citizenship law, which states that a Syrian Arab is ‘anyone born in the state [Syria] as a child of parents who are unknown or of unknown citizenship or who are stateless.’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made it clear on several occasions that he will not include the maktumin in any granting of citizenship rights.

Estimates of the total number of stateless Kurds in Syria vary, but 300,000 is a standard approximation, with the maktumin making up a quarter of that number.

For a poignant, personal story of a stateless Kurd, read A Foreigner in My Own Country.


4 thoughts on “Clarifying the citizenship decree for Kurds in Syria

  1. Pingback: Syria Comment » Archives » News Round Up (28 April 2011)

  2. So since there is only a “Syrian Arab” citizenship and no “Syrian Kurd” citizenship, why would a Kurd with a “Syrian Arab” citizenship be a “second-class citizen” as opposed to an Arab with the same “Syrian Arab” citizenship? The fact that we saw so many Kurdistan flags in Hasake during the recent events just prove that what Sa’id al-Sayyid said was true, no? If you are suffering so much, now that 95% of Kurds have citizenship in Syria, they can freely immigrate to the Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurds have their own autonomous Parliament. Isn’t that what you really want? You will not get it in Syria, that is for sure, even under different leadership. To me just the first question is important. Explain please!

  3. Hi Murad,
    Good question. Kurds are second-class citizens because they do not enjoy the same basic freedoms as Arab citizens. Kurdish culture is criminalised. Arabs don’t get arrested for celebrating their holidays. Arabs don’t get arrested for reading their poetry. Arabs don’t get arrested for speaking Arabic. Kurds do. The state has created a legal environment that is able to prosecute any expression of Kurdish identity.

    A few examples: In 1986 a decree was issued which specifically forbade the speaking of Kurdish at private celebrations; Kurdish was banned from the workplace, public office, cinemas, and cafes. In 1987 the Culture Minister forbids playing and circulation of Kurdish music cassettes and videos. In 1995 there was an order prohibiting use of non-Arabic names for businesses in al-Hasakeh province. In 2000, Resolution 768, ordered the closing of all stores selling cassettes, videos, and disks in Kurdish and re-emphasised the prohibition of using Kurdish during meetings and festivities. In 2008 a there was a decision forbidding any gathering or protest or celebration without the approval of the Ministry of Interior. These are just a few examples!

    Hope that gives you a sense of why I wrote 2nd-class citizens.


  4. And i have a question to Murad: why Kurds should imigratte to Bashuri Kurdistan (which you called by funny name “iraqi” Kurdistan) if they are on their own land – this land is a part of Kurdistan and is called Rojawai Kurdistan – Western Kurdistan – but i think you know that very well.
    What we really want – to answer your second question – is to give our land back to us, which is now occupied by syria.
    any other questions?

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