THE HAGUE, Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of exiled Syrian children may become stateless because of the fighting in their country, putting them at risk of exploitation and potentially hindering their return home, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday.
High casualty rates and forcible separation mean a quarter of Syrian refugee families are headed by women, but Syrian law does not allow women to pass their nationality to their children.
"Syrian children acquire nationality exclusively through their fathers," said Amit Sen, regional protection officer for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). "However the war in Syria has robbed hundreds of thousands of children of their fathers."
Without identity documents children cannot access healthcare and education. In adolescence the lack of papers proving their age puts them at risk of early marriage, child labour, recruitment by armed forces and being trafficked.
"We already have very high levels of child marriage and child labour in the region, and we are introducing on top of this a generation of unpapered children who have no proof of status or age," Sen said.
He was speaking on the sidelines of the first global forum on statelessness, in The Hague, where 300 experts have gathered to discuss an issue affecting 10 million people worldwide.
Some three million Syrians have left as refugees and 3.5 million are displaced within the country. More than half of Syrian refugees are children, but many families were unable to register them before fleeing abroad.
Some 51,000 Syrian babies have been born in exile. Three quarters of those born in Lebanon have not been registered and experts believe the proportion is similar in other countries hosting Syrian refugees.
"It should really alarm us that we have 77 percent of refugee births unregistered in one country, that we have nationality through the father only, that we have so many missing fathers," Sen told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Also at risk of statelessness are the 8,000 refugee children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families.
The UNHCR is running a big campaign to encourage Syrian refugees to register the birth of their children. But laws in many host countries require parents to produce a marriage certificate as well as proof of identity to register a birth.
Experts say this is often impossible because refugees have lost vital documents as they fled or when their homes were destroyed. Militants from Islamic State, which has seized a swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq, are also confiscating documents as a punitive measure.
"They are taking people's papers as a way to strip them of everything - strip them of their histories, their property but also their identity, their belonging and their identity as nationals," Sen added.
Another potential cause of statelessness is the widespread use among refugees of forms of marriage that are not legally valid, meaning their children will be unable to acquire a birth certificate, he said.
The UNHCR is working with governments in countries hosting Syrian refugees to increase birth and marriage registration.
Sen said Lebanon had simplified birth registration and Jordan had put a civil registry office and a sharia (Islamic law) court in the main Syrian refugee camp at Zaatari to help register births and marriages.
Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are among 27 countries that do not allow women to pass their nationality to their children - one of the biggest causes of statelessness worldwide.
(Editing by Tim Pearce )