LEBANON: Citizenship rules lead children to jail

[BEIRUT, Lebanon] - Every year, Salha Solh spends half her small income of $3,600 just to keep her three sons and three daughters from being deported from their homeland.

Solh is Lebanese but her husband is Pakistani, and under Lebanese law she cannot pass her citizenship on to her children. They are Pakistanis in the law's eyes and need expensive annual residency visas, even though they were born and raised here and have never been to their father's country.

A few months ago, Solh's eldest son was picked up by police for not renewing his residence permit on time and imprisoned for three months until he got a new one.

Nearly every Arab country has similar laws, rooted in Islamic precepts that emphasize paternity as the source of identity. Women's groups have succeeded in changing such laws in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria and are leading campaigns elsewhere, usually against religious conservatives.

In Lebanon, reformers are finally gaining attention for the issue - through a series of small public protests like one that Solh recently attended, of 100 people, on Beirut Martyrs' Square.

"It is my children's right to have Lebanese citizenship," said Solh, who works as a cook and whose husband is unemployed after falling sick recently.

But in Lebanon, the opposition is not only religious but also sectarian and nationalist. Many Lebanese fear that allowing women to pass their citizenship to their children will upset the country's delicate sectarian balance, or open a backdoor for the large Palestinian refugee population to gain citizenship.

"Definitely there is sexism" in such worries, said Information Minister Tarek Mitri, who supports changing the law. "I fear that this might take a bit of time (to change)."

He pointed out that many more Lebanese men are married to Palestinians or other foreigners than the reverse, and no one sees their children as anything but Lebanese.

But in the eyes of many - not just the law - a Lebanese woman with children by a foreign father is seen as bringing foreigners into the country.

Lebanon's population of 4 million is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druse, and every community is highly sensitive to anything that tips the demographics.

Moreover, Lebanese of all stripes are deeply suspicious of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live on the country's soil. The Palestinians, who live in a number of impoverished camps, have not sought mass citizenship, fearing that it would mean permanent settlement in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, many Lebanese remain wary of giving them any foothold.

"The Lebanese constitution prevents all forms of settling Palestinians in Lebanon," said Christian lawmaker Naamatallah Abi-Nasr, who opposes changing the current law.

He said he would only support a change if Lebanese are given the same treatment by other Arab countries - a condition not likely to be met. "If a Saudi woman gets married to a Lebanese, he should be given Saudi citizenship," Abi-Nasr said.

Reformers face a similar situation in Jordan, home to nearly 2 million Palestinian refugees. Queen Rania has pressed for new laws to allow women to pass on their nationality, but lawmakers have resisted, fearing the move could open the way for Palestinian refugees to gain citizenship.

In Lebanon, activists and women married to foreigners have in recent months held conferences and sit-ins, including protests outside the prime minister's office and near parliament in October.

A draft bill to allow women to pass on their citizenship has been submitted to parliament, though it is not known when lawmakers will take it up.

"Lebanon is the least-advanced country in the region when it comes to this matter," says Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development Action, a campaign leader.

It is not known how many Lebanese women are married to foreigners, but they are believed to number in the thousands. Many live abroad and are not registered.

Syrians and Palestinians married to Lebanese also don't register with authorities since Palestinian refugees don't need residency permits in Lebanon, while Syrians can stay up to six months without applying for a residency permit.

Without citizenship, husbands and children of Lebanese women are barred from government jobs and cannot own property or businesses. They must also renew their residency every year, each time costing around $300.

"We, Arab women, want our rights," Ikbal Doughan, a women's rights activists and the lawyer of the citizenship campaign, told a conference recently. "We are not asking for more."

Further information

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