Skip to main content

Born in the 'Caliphate': The Iraqi children without a country

Iraq faces a red-tape nightmare in the wake of Islamic State: babies born without the necessary documents to help them navigate life
Wijdan Mohammad Sultan holds her son Anas, who was born in Mosul (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)

About 30 kilometres east of Mosul, between the barbed-wire fence surrounding the internally displaced persons' camp of Khazer, a city has emerged.

Tents, provided as humanitarian assistance, house 33,000 Iraqis, who have lived isolated in the desert since November.

The Khazer camp, home to 33,000 people, on 6 April 2017 (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
An imitation of everyday life has been recreated amid a long alleyway of mud and rocks. Cans of tomatoes, eggs and other surplus items of food aid are resold beside phone card top-ups and multicoloured scarves. Next to a grocery store, a crowd hurries up to a small, temporary caravan.

A man, wearing a suit and a colourful tie, steps out of a pick-up and also makes his way there. He is a judge at the court in Nineveh, and has come to spend some hours in the caravan, helping displaced people deal with complex legal problems. An assistant asks that he not be named: by helping stateless people, the judge will be targeted by militant groups.

'A month and half ago, when I arrived here, I was told that I could not receive milk and nappies if I did not have a valid birth certificate to present'

- Huda Abdullah Fathe, mother

Looking tired but determined, Huda Abdullah Fathe, 24, waits her turn in line. In her arms she carries Thuraya, her six-month-old daughter, who is wrapped in a baby cloth with a flower pattern.

Thuraya has spent the night crying and vomiting after drinking from her feeding bottle. Fathe explains: she is unable to produce her own milk to feed her child because of the stress of war and so mixed some water with cakes.

But Fathe faces another problem.

Iraqis wait in line outside the mobile court at Khazer camp (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
"A month and half ago, when I arrived here, I was told that I could not receive milk and nappies if I did not have a valid birth certificate to present,” says Fathe.

Thuraya was born in Mosul while it was under occupation by Islamic State (IS). There is no legal record of her existence.

Thousands of children need help

Iraq now faces an administrative nightmare as children born in the self-declared caliphate since June 2014 find themselves stateless.

The limitations go beyond the immediate concerns of securing milk and nappies. If the situation is not settled urgently, then a generation will grow up without access to education or social security, face difficulties finding work and be vulnerable to people-trafficking networks.

A couple in the mobile courtroom are awarded a birth certificate for their child (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Mariele Hernandez is the Mosul emergency response reporting officer for the Swedish NGO Qandil, which is working with the United Nations to protect and help displaced persons.

"There were two million inhabitants in Mosul [when IS took over]," she said, "with a population growth of about 2.5 percent. Statistically, that means 50,000 births every year."

Qandil has asked an Iraqi judge to come once a week to each of the four camps it works in and deal with the documentation.

Huda, her husband Ammar Ahmad Ibrahim and child stand before the judge and present their ID cards and marriage certificate.

"Do you swear on the Quran that what you say is correct?" the judge asks the couple. Like everyone else, they reply yes.

'Do you swear on the Quran that what you say is correct?' the judge asks the couple. Like everyone else, they reply yes

The pair then have their names and phone numbers recorded by the judge's assistant on a white sheet of paper. Two witnesses, their neighbours, also participate in the process. "Yes, we know the parents of the baby, they are husband and wife," they confirm. "This child is the fruit of their union."

After the quartet take turns imprinting their fingerprints on the paper by way of a signature, the paperwork is done and the judge confirms the authenticity of the new birth certificate.

Sometimes it is necessary to revise the parents' documents even before taking care of those for their children. The procedure can take several months before it ends up on a judge's desk.

Qandil has formally identified 4,000 cases relating to birth certificates which need attention, of which only 1,000 have been resolved during the past four months. The problem is huge: there are 45,000 children in Khazer and three other neighbouring camps and Qandil only has 20 mobile teams composed of 60 staff.

"There is a high rate of illiteracy, and it is sometimes very difficult to explain the procedure to the parents," said Hernandez. There are also numerous stateless children beyond the camps, in areas not covered by the NGO or which are still controlled by IS.

Two sisters, two futures?

The case of a stateless baby has just been identified at a camp near the partially destroyed village of Hassan Sham, which holds around 9,000 people.

We meet Nadia Jasm Muhammad, 23, in her tent. She takes Mariam, three, between her knees.

Amna Jasm Muhammad was born under IS rule without official documentation (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Her daughter was born in Mosul in June 2014, a few weeks before the city fell to IS, where she was properly registered for free. But her youngest, Amna, who sleeps by her side, her head propped up on an orange pillow, was not so lucky. She was born in May 2015 in a hospital in Mosul. By then, IS had taken over and started charging for public services (only the families of IS members were exempt).

"The birth of my daughter cost me 100,000 Iraqi dinars [around $85]," said Muhammad. "My husband borrowed this sum from his boss and worked free of charge for him to pay it off."

Seven days later, Muhammad had to go to another hospital to get the birth certificate for 10,000 dinars.

Amna's documentation is coloured pink, as was that for her older sister, but the design and the official stamp, differ. In Arabic it reads "al-dawla al-islamiya" (Islamic State), signifying how the militant group had established the basis of a primitive administration in a matter of months.

'Without papers, my daughter has no rights. I am trying to leave the camp to settle in Erbil. But the process is frozen as long as I do not obtain documents for Amna'

- Nadia Jasm Muhammad, mother

Families who possess only an IS-stamped certificates face being regarded as IS supporters, especially at the multiple checkpoints spread along Iraq's roads.

Nadia complains: "Without papers, my daughter has no rights. I am trying to leave the camp to settle in Erbil. But the process is frozen as long as I do not obtain documents for Amna."

'It is my duty to help them'

Back in Khazer, it is 3pm when the judge finally closes his last file. Today he has issued 10 birth certificates.

"As long as IS controls territories, the stream of internally displaced persons will continue," he said. "Every time I come here, I imagine myself in their situation. It is my duty to help them."

The judge fled Mosul shortly before the fall: like every other state employee of the Iraqi government, he knew he was in danger of being killed, but hopes to return to the city one day.

"In Europe, there were religious wars in the past. One day, my country will know the same level of religious co-existence which exists there today."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.