UNHCR helps displaced Iraqis acquire vital documentation

Jassem, 21, and Najlaa, 22, smile shyly at each other. The young couple got married three years ago but never had a legal certificate because they lived under the rule of extremists in a town near Mosul. 

After fleeing the battle to retake the city, they are now sheltering in Hasansham U2 camp, built by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. As well as a marriage certificate, they need birth certificates for their two young children, Ibtihal, two, and one-year-old Abdulsalam. 

Lacking the papers has meant that the young couple have not been able to access vital social services or travel, and their two young children risk becoming stateless – although they are getting help to address this. 

Every week, a mobile court visits five main camps for displaced Iraqis in eastern Mosul. On one recent visit, Jassem and Najlaa went to the court, presided over by a visiting judge and hosted by UNHCR’s protection partner, Qandil, in a cabin at the camp, they finally received their marriage certificate. 

“It’s like I’m getting married for the first time today. We couldn’t get a taxi inside Mosul because we didn’t have a marriage certificate,” said Najlaa, referring to the strict morality rules imposed by armed groups controlling the city that prevented unmarried couples from being seen together in public. 

The Iraqi government declared victory in Mosul on July 9. In the nine months since the operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city began, more than 900,000 people have fled the city, according to Iraqi government figures. 

Thousands remain displaced and are sheltering in camps around Mosul. Others have returned to the city, are renting elsewhere, staying with friends or families or living in war-damaged buildings. The mobile court was set up in December, and issues about 20-25 birth and marriage certificates every week. 

The court also assists families in need of birth and death certificates, as well as personal ID documents, and has so far issued 2,500 legal documents. Some of these documents were lost or stolen during the war, never existed, or were issued by armed groups so are no longer valid. 

Restriction of movement for displaced Iraqis living in the camps means that they are unable to access the Civil Affairs Offices or local courts in order to replace or apply for new documents. UNHCR is also working with legal teams from Harikar NGO, CDO (Civil Development Organization) and INTERSOS to help those in need of documents. 

“People have been in a legal limbo. While there is still a lot of work to do, we have managed to help thousands of people to obtain legal documents and the mobile court facilities have been an important part of this success,” said Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s representative in Iraq. 

“In the camps, displaced families receive food, nappies, milk and other basic aid for everyday use. But if the parents don’t have a marriage certificate, they can’t receive any of these benefits ... without official documents, the displaced person has no legal status,” said lawyer Aram Mahmoud, who works with Qandil, a UNHCR partner. 

There are still around 40,000 missing documents that need replacing, he added. When it was time, Najlaa and Jassem stood inside the small cabin and gave their fingerprints and dates of birth to the judge, who then issued their marriage certificate. 

Afterwards, back in their tent with their children, Jassem said: “I feel like I’ve just become like any other normal citizen. She is now officially my wife, and the children are registered under my name. It is their basic civil right, and I can use these documents to eventually enroll my children in school. 

“I want them to go to school because I don’t want them to end up like me. I don’t have a school certificate so I can only do [construction]. I want them to be doctors and policemen. It will guarantee them a good future,” he said. 

By Cathy Otten and Rima Cherri
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