(Beirut) – Lebanon should amend an outdated nationality law to ensure that children and spouses of Lebanese women have the same right to citizenship as those of Lebanese men, Human Rights Watch said today.
The current law discriminates against women married to foreigners, their children, and spouses, by denying citizenship to the children and spouses. The law affects almost every aspect of the children’s and spouses’ lives, including legal residency and access to work, education, social services, and health care. It leaves some children at risk of statelessness. Lebanon should end all forms of discrimination against Lebanese women, their children, and spouses in the nationality law.
“Parliament should urgently amend a French mandate-era nationality law that has been causing untold hardship for more than 90 years with no justification,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent steps to provide access to basic rights like education and work to the children and spouses of Lebanese women are a step in the right direction, but confusing and piecemeal measures are no substitute for equal citizenship.”
Lebanon’s 1925 nationality law allows the foreign spouses of Lebanese men, but not women, to obtain citizenship after one year. The law also grants Lebanese citizenship only to children born to a Lebanese father, those born in Lebanon who would not otherwise acquire another nationality through birth or affiliation, or those born in Lebanon to unknown parents or parents of unknown nationalities. Children of Lebanese mothers with unknown paternity therefore have greater claims to citizenship than those with Lebanese mothers and a known foreign father.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 15 Lebanese women married to foreigners and noncitizen children of Lebanese mothers, who uniformly described barriers to basic rights and their feeling of rejection by the Lebanese government.
The noncitizen children and spouses must reapply for legal residency in Lebanon every one to three years. They need a permit to work in Lebanon, are barred from or face barriers to many professions, and report discrimination in the job market. They are denied access to national health insurance and government-subsidized medical care, even though they must pay into the system if they work. They also face bureaucratic hurdles in enrolling in public schools and universities.
While individual ministries have made incremental decisions to ease access to some basic rights, like education and work, these are piecemeal and subject to change. A lack of information about the current procedures and rules compounds barriers to accessing basic rights.
Lebanon should amend the nationality law to grant citizenship to the children and spouses of Lebanese women and end discrimination under its nationality laws, Human Rights Watch said. In the interim, the Ministries of Labor, Health, and Education should adopt and publicize decisions treating spouses and children of Lebanese women on par with Lebanese citizens, to ensure they are not denied basic rights and services.
Amanda, the 26-year-old daughter of a Lebanese mother and Swiss father, said that although she considered herself Lebanese, it was “frustrating and humiliating” to routinely reapply for Lebanese residency while officials remarked that she was lucky to have free residency, “as if this was some kind of blessing they were bestowing on me instead of my right.” May, 43, who is married to an Egyptian, said “It’s as if they want me to suffer after marrying […] We’re treated as if we have abandoned our country.”
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministries of Labor, Health, Education, Interior, and Social Affairs on August 24, 2018 about the issue. On September 24, the Ministry of Labor responded by confirming that the children and spouses of Lebanese women need a valid work permit to work legally in Lebanon, unlike the spouses and children of Lebanese men, and outlining the process by which they can do so. The Ministries of Health, Education, Interior, and Social Affairs did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s correspondence.
Lebanese activists have campaigned for two decades to amend the nationality law, including through organizing by the local NGOs Collective for Research and Training on Development - Action (CRTDA) and Masir.
For years, politicians have contended that allowing women who married Palestinians living in Lebanon to confer their citizenship to spouses and children would disrupt Lebanon’s sectarian balance. However, a 2016 census of Palestinians in Lebanon found just 3,707 cases of a Palestinian head of household married to a spouse of a different nationality. These stated justifications are also clearly discriminatory, Human Rights Watch said, as they are not applied to Lebanese men who marry foreigners – as many as four wives for Muslim men.
There is no publicly available data on the number of Lebanese women who have married foreigners or the number of children affected, but one 2009 UN Development Program-backed study found that there were 18,000 marriages between Lebanese women and foreigners in Lebanon between 1995 and 2008.
Frontiers Ruwad Association, a Lebanese human rights organization, found in a 2012-2013 study that 73 percent of stateless people in Lebanon, who are not of Palestinian origin, were born to a Lebanese mother. In an unpublished 2013 study, Frontiers Ruwad estimated that Lebanon had 60,000 to 80,000 stateless people, excluding Palestinians and migrants.
Ahead of Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections, several politicians, including the caretaker Interior Minister, Nouhad Machnouk, publicly supported granting citizenship to the children of all Lebanese women. In response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, several parliamentary candidates and two major political parties also promised to amend Lebanon's nationality law to ensure that Lebanese women can pass on their citizenship to their children. On August 6, the Progressive Socialist Party announced a proposal to amend the nationality law to allow Lebanese women to pass on their citizenship to their children and non-Lebanese spouses on an equal basis with Lebanese men, but no action has been taken since.
Lebanon is far behind some other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen, all of which provide equal citizenship rights to the children of both women and men. Iraq and Mauritania confer nationality to the children born in the country. “In Lebanon, there’s an impression that we’re advanced,” said May, who is married to an Egyptian. “It seems as if women have rights, but in the law we’re behind. It’s worse than other Arab countries.”
By depriving these children and spouses their right to obtain citizenship on an equal basis with the children and spouses of Lebanese men, Lebanon discriminates against Lebanese women married to foreigners, and their children and spouses. This violates both international law and its own constitution, article 7 of which guarantees all Lebanese equality before the law. Numerous UN committees have urged Lebanon to amend its nationality law, including the Human Rights Committee, Committee on the Rights of the Child, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Lebanon is also a party to international human rights treaties that prohibit discrimination against women in conferring nationality, including the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in particular requires that states parties grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change, or retain their nationality, and equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.
“I’m almost certain my kids will travel and study abroad,” said May, 43, the mother of two daughters without Lebanese citizenship. “Unless things change, they will suffer. I always tell them ‘you’re Lebanese.’ It’s important. The only difference is that you don’t have the paper that says so. We’ll continue to fight for this. And we remain hopeful.”
In 2010, decree No. 4186 gave the husbands and children of Lebanese women the right to free “courtesy” residency permits, valid for either one or three years, depending on their passport expiration date. Lebanon’s General Security agency initially required foreign husbands to sign a pledge not to work. Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer at the Lebanese non-governmental organization Legal Agenda, told Human Rights Watch the requirement was later removed, but women married to Lebanese men must still sign the pledge to get the residency before acquiring citizenship.
Residency is free, but applicants need to pay for the paperwork. “They tell us it’s a courtesy residency and that it’s free. In reality, however, it’s not,” said May, a 43-year-old Lebanese woman married to an Egyptian. “There are about US$100-200 in fees [to process the paperwork].” Others said the process was complicated and took too much time.
Hanadi, 40, said the process of obtaining residency for her four children born in Lebanon was disorganized and unclear: “They make us get papers, people aren’t very responsive, every day it’s ‘come back tomorrow, go there,’ and when we do they tell us go back – it’s as if we get stuck in a circle.” Hanadi said it once took five months to renew her sons’ residency: “Overall, the residency isn’t costly, but the effort is – it takes time, we suffer a lot.”
Lebanese women married to foreign nationals and their children also said that periodically applying for residency in a country they considered home was humiliating. “On the day we need to renew the residencies, I feel humiliated,” said May. “Why am I being treated differently?”
Rights activists in Lebanon say the child of a Lebanese woman should not need to continuously prove their birth and renew residency and the length of residency for children or spouses should not depend on their passport expiration date. The process also creates obstacles to legal status in some cases. CRTDA has reported that Syrians fearful of persecution may be unwilling to go to the Syrian embassy to renew passports they need to maintain legal residency in Lebanon. Students whose residency expires while they are studying abroad may face difficulties when they try to re-enter Lebanon.
Until parliament amends the nationality law to grant equal citizenship rights, General Security should issue permanent residency permits to spouses and children of Lebanese mothers, Human Rights Watch said.
Right to Work
Both children and spouses of Lebanese women need a valid work permit to work legally in Lebanon. In 2011, Labor Ministry regulation No. 122/1 granted the labor minister discretion to issue them work permits for professions reserved for Lebanese citizens. However, the labor decrees are renewed yearly and do not provide adequate protection. Discretion to issue the work permits does not necessarily mean they will be issued.
The Labor Ministry should issue a decree treating children of and spouses married for one year to Lebanese women equally with Lebanese citizens in all ministry decisions, Human Rights Watch said.
Several professions in Lebanon require membership in a professional union or syndicate, some of which restrict membership to Lebanese citizens, effectively barring children and spouses of Lebanese women from those professions. The Bar Association, Veterinary Association, Syndicate of Midwives, and Order of Nurses all bar membership to foreigners. Safa, the 20-year-old daughter of a Lebanese woman and Palestinian father, said she considered studying architecture, but ultimately chose fashion design because “I was told we can’t enroll in the union or get benefits.”
Some unions place additional restrictions on eligibility that are almost impossible to meet, such as requiring the person’s country of origin to allow Lebanese citizens to practice the profession there or requiring the person to prove they are licensed to practice the profession in their home country. This is impossible for children who cannot obtain nationality from their father or whose fathers are stateless, as well as for many who have only lived and studied in Lebanon.
Labor unions and syndicates should extend membership to the children of and spouses married for one year to Lebanese women on an equal basis with Lebanese citizens until parliament amends the nationality law, Human Rights Watch said.
Because children and spouses of Lebanese women are treated as foreigners, they are caught up in broad ministry decisions targeting foreigners, such as a 2017 Labor Ministry effort to crack down on workplaces hiring non-Lebanese, widely understood to target Syrians.
CRTDA and noncitizen children of Lebanese women also told Human Rights Watch that children and spouses of Lebanese women regularly face discrimination in the labor market. “For some work positions they prefer to have a Lebanese national, so that excludes me,” said Haifa, 28, the daughter of a Lebanese woman. “I don’t apply for a position that says it prefers a Lebanese national,” she said. The additional cost and effort associated with having to obtain a work permit for noncitizen children and spouses of Lebanese women also deters employers from hiring them. Nada, a Lebanese citizen married to an American, said her son Basem “tried to apply for jobs after graduating, but they wouldn't take him, because he'd be an additional expense to them.”
Noncitizen children said work permit requirements are driving them abroad. Amanda, 26, who lived in Lebanon from age 10 to 18, and then moved abroad for college, said: “The possibility that I’d come back to the country is slim. I’m anticipating a lot of difficulty applying for work permits and going through residency again. It feels like a lot of doors are shut before I even get there.”
Parents of noncitizen children consistently said the nationality law would most likely cause their children to leave Lebanon. “I worry a lot about my children,” Hanadi said. “How can they find jobs? What will they study? They can’t pick a major that will eventually require enrolling in a union. Eventually, they’ll have to emigrate and I will lose them if things don’t change.”
Access to Health Care
Foreign nationals are largely excluded from healthcare benefits through Lebanon’s National Insurance Fund or Health Ministry-subsidized care, the children of Lebanese women and activists told Human Rights Watch. “For those who don’t have national insurance, they can get coverage through the ministry,” said Danya, whose husband is Palestinian. “But my family can’t. Even if a thorn pricks you, you’d spend all you have. We had private insurance for a while but then we stopped it. We made some calculations, and in case of a chronic illness they won’t renew it. Either way, we’d need to pay everything.”
Noncitizen children and spouses of Lebanese women working in Lebanon must pay into the national insurance system but are not eligible to benefit from it. “I’m paying taxes, but I don’t know if I can get benefits, so I pay my own health insurance,” Haifa said. “I don’t even think about retirement. I pay for health insurance from my own income.”
Lebanon’s Health Ministry and National Insurance Fund should allow noncitizen children and spouses of Lebanese women to benefit from available public healthcare services on par with Lebanese citizens, Human Rights Watch said.
The noncitizen children of Lebanese women can attend Lebanese public schools for free. However, because these children are deemed foreign nationals, the Education Ministry’s annual enrollment decrees that prioritize the enrollment of Lebanese students make it harder for them to enroll. Activists told Human Rights Watch the ministry has repeatedly corrected this, following complaints, by giving preferential treatment to children of Lebanese mothers, but a permanent solution is needed. Most recently, on September 7, the caretaker education minister, Marwan Hamadeh, issued a circular calling on schools and universities to not discriminate against the children of Lebanese women and foreign men. The ministry should issue a decree requiring treating these children on a par with citizens, Human Rights Watch said.
In some cases, children without the necessary documents have faced complications in enrolling in school or taking national exams. Hanadi said that before one of her sons took the Brevet exam, the national examination at the end of middle school, the ministry rejected a General Security attestation that his residency application was in process. “I was so afraid on the first day of the exams,” she said. “I gave him every paper we had. All the other children just carried a card and their civil extract [also known as an individual status record] with them. He carried an entire folder.”
Noncitizen children and spouses of Lebanese women applying to a university may not be eligible for financial aid. Safa, 20, said she applied to two universities in Lebanon, but “in the email they sent me, they specifically said that loans are for Lebanese only.” CRTDA said application fees are higher for non-Lebanese applicants in some universities.
Under law 296 of 2001, Palestinians in Lebanon cannot acquire or transfer property, further discriminating against the noncitizen children of Lebanese women married to Palestinians. “Our children can theoretically inherit from us, but in reality they can’t register anything,” said Danya, who is married to a Palestinian. “The fate of our property is unknown. It’s something we worry about a lot. The government prohibits them from the right to own.… It’s really crushing. We work for our children but can’t secure anything. They can’t effectively hold or own anything. I feel, eventually, their future is abroad.”
Lebanese women, their noncitizen children, and nongovernmental organizations said that banks would not issue loans to noncitizens. Manal said that for her Palestinian husband, “loans aren't an option. They wouldn’t even let him submit the application.” She said the bank would not allow them to submit a joint application for a home loan. They weren’t able to purchase a home, because her salary is not enough to secure a loan on its own.
In 1994, a bulk naturalization decree granted citizenship to tens of thousands of non-citizen residents, but did not end legal discrimination against Lebanese women, their children, and spouses. In 2012, the Council of Ministers established a ministerial committee to study possible amendments to the nationality law. But in its December 2012 report, the committee proposed that Lebanon grant some privileges to people born to Lebanese mothers, but not amend the law. Lebanon’s cabinet accepted the committee’s recommendations in 2013.
Since then, Lebanon has prioritized citizenship for those living outside the country over the children and spouses of Lebanese women living in Lebanon. In 2015, parliament passed a law to grant citizenship to members of the Lebanese diaspora living abroad, and again excluded the descendants of Lebanese women. A government website limits eligibility under the law to those with a “father or grandfather with Lebanese origins” or “the foreign wife of a Lebanese man.” A 2016 decision by Lebanon’s Constitutional Council upheld the law.
In March 2018, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil proposed amending the citizenship law to recognize the right of Lebanese mothers married to non-Lebanese men to equality in passing on their nationality to their children. But the draft law would exclude men and women married to Palestinians or Syrians, cementing discrimination on the basis of national origin. “His proposal not only differentiates between Lebanese and other Lebanese, but also between Lebanese women and other Lebanese women,” said May, “It was a stab in the back, a knife in our backs and hearts.”
In May, the latest in a series of controversial naturalization decrees granted Lebanese citizenship to more than 400 foreign nationals, sparking outrage among those campaigning for citizenship for the children and spouses of Lebanese women married to foreigners.
Lebanese women and their noncitizen children consistently said they felt discriminated against and treated as second class.
Noncitizen children told Human Rights Watch that although they feel Lebanese, their lack of citizenship robs them of their Lebanese identity. “I really feel that the Lebanese society doesn’t recognize me as half Lebanese,” said Angela, 28, who lives in France. “Because I only have Lebanese blood from my mother, it’s like I’m not really Lebanese.” Hanadi, who has four children who were born in Lebanon and have always lived there with her Syrian husband, said: “This citizenship issue makes us feel like something that is ours is stolen, a right that we didn’t get. My children, they’re part of me, yet they are treated like strangers. Their blood is Lebanese. Don’t they call the land a motherland? I’m their mother.”
Joelle, 42, said she’s not sure how she’s going to tell her two children that they aren’t Lebanese: “In a few years’ time, I’ll have to say: ‘you’re not Lebanese.’ I don’t know how to say that, and I don’t know what their reaction will be. How do you tell your son that his best friend is Lebanese, but he can’t be Lebanese? I’m hoping deep down that by the time they’re adults, we’ll be over this prehistoric law.”
“People treat you differently, as if you’re less,” said Manal. “Even if you have degrees, even if you’re educated, you’re less… They make you feel like nothing.”