Lebanese women with foreign spouses denied coronavirus aid

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Like many Lebanese families these days, Layal el Hallak’s family is having a tough time.

During the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, her husband continued to work at a supermarket, but his salary was cut in half as a result of the ongoing economic and currency crises. Meanwhile, the prices of many goods have doubled or tripled.

Last month, they were relieved to learn the government would be distributing cash assistance payments of 400,000 Lebanese lira (about $267 at the official exchange rate, and $100 at the current street exchange rate). They learned about the program through the public school their two eldest children attend in the southern city of Saida, and they filled out the required form and were put on the list to receive the assistance.

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But when they tried to claim it, they ran into a familiar roadblock – while Hallak is Lebanese, her husband is Palestinian.

Under Lebanese law, children of Lebanese women married to foreign men do not have Lebanese citizenship, as citizenship is derived only from the father.

In this case, it also meant that the family was deemed ineligible to receive the aid.

Aid denied

“I said to them, ‘I am Lebanese, and I live in Lebanon, and all of my family are Lebanese people’ and they said, ‘No, your kids are Palestinian because their father is Palestinian, so you’re not going to get any help,’” Hallak told Al Arabiya English. She noted that the family has also not received any aid from UNRWA, the UN agency overseeing Palestinian refugees, during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lebanese police wear face masks as they stand guard during an anti-government protest, amid a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus in Beirut, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)
Lebanese police wear face masks as they stand guard during an anti-government protest, amid a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus in Beirut, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)

Lebanon’s nationality law allows Lebanese men to pass their citizenship to their children, as well as to their foreign-born wives, but does not grant women the same right. The law has been the subject of multiple attempts at legal reform over the years, but none of the attempted amendments have succeeded.

A regional debate

The debate is not unique to Lebanon. According to the Global Campaign for Equality rights, Algeria is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa region that grants men and women equal nationality rights. However, a number of countries in the region – including Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen – have passed legal reforms in recent years, in most cases allowing women to pass their nationality to their children but not to their spouses.

Lebanon remains a holdout largely because of sectarian concerns. Opponents of reform efforts have expressed concerns that if the children of women married to Palestinian and Syrian refugees, who are primarily Sunni Muslims, were given the nationality, it would skew the demographics of the country, disadvantaging Christians and Shia Muslims.

“In every field, Lebanese women who are married to foreign people are really suffering,” said Hallak, who is an activist with a group called Jinsiyati Karamati (My Nationality My Dignity) that is pushing for legal reforms.

Her children, for instance, do not have the right to own property in Lebanon. “We are Lebanese women; we’ve lived here and [have] been raised here, and our families are all Lebanese and we are the ones who are raising the kids.”

The 400,000 lira payments were announced by the Minister of Social Affairs, Ramzi Moucharafieh, in early April, and the Lebanese Armed Forced were designated to handle the distribution.

A source in the Ministry of Social Affairs said the decision to bar Lebanese women married to foreigners from receiving the assistance had been made by the Army, not by the ministry.

From the ministry’s perspective, the source said, “It’s not an official policy not to give to the women married to foreigner, to prevent this right from them. They are all eligible.”

An Army spokesman said that the list of names for aid distribution had come from the municipalities, and the Army's role was limited to checking each recipient's identification to make sure he was on the list. “We cannot change the names, we cannot do anything about the names – the names come directly from the municipality of each region.”

Complaints raised, little progress

After activists raised the issue of Lebanese mothers married to foreigners being denied payments, some officials intervened.

Member of Parliament Rola Tabsh posted on Twitter on April 22, that the problem had been solved.

“Good news for Lebanese mothers married to non-Lebanese men: Today the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Social Affairs assured me that the children of a Lebanese mother and a foreign father will not be excluded from the assistance of the Ministry of (Social) Affairs, nor from repatriation trips of Lebanese from abroad.”

But women said in reality, the problems had persisted.

A boy jumps into the water as Lebanon extends a shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus at Beirut's seaside Corniche, Lebanon, May 5, 2020. (Reuters)
A boy jumps into the water as Lebanon extends a shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus at Beirut's seaside Corniche, Lebanon, May 5, 2020. (Reuters)

Zeina Chatila, a mother in Beirut who is also active with My Nationality My Dignity campaign, said she was denied the aid despite the fact that she is divorced, and is now the sole provider for her 13-year-old daughter. Like Hallak, Chatila initially heard about the aid payments via the public school her daughter attends, which asked the parents to fill out a form to apply for the assistance. Chatila said all the families she knew with Lebanese fathers had received the payment.

“I know that the principal is innocent and has nothing to do with it, but she is in the front,” Chatila said. So, upon hearing that her family was not eligible, she said, “I told her, ‘Please send my message that the Lebanese women, [and] their children are Lebanese, and what you did, it’s unfair, and it’s nonsense.’”

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Another group pushing for reforms, the My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family Campaign, provided Al Arabiya English with copies of a number of complaints they had received from women in similar situations, who had also been denied the aid payment.

“Today the school called us and told us we won’t get anything because my husband is Syrian,” one woman wrote. “Ok, in this situation, neither me nor my husband are working. We are selling our things from our house to be able to feed the children.”

The campaign’s coordinator, Karima Chebbo, said a number of officials had promised to ensure that there would be no “exceptions or discrimination” against Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men in distributing the aid. But in the end, she said, “There is still discrimination and they are still not giving them… They’re not solving anything.”

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