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).
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.’
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.