BEIRUT, 29 January (IRIN) – About 10 years ago, Nadira and Amer Nahhas left the United Stated to settle in Lebanon, not realising that their children would live as foreigners in Nadira’s homeland. "I am Lebanese, but my husband is a foreigner, this is why my children are foreigners," said Nadira. According to Article 1 of the Lebanese Domestic Law, only "the child born of a Lebanese father" is deemed Lebanese. While Lebanon acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1997, it placed a reservation on the article that stipulates that "states parties shall grant women equal rights with respect to the nationality of their children".The reservation exempts the government from having to implement the Article.

Since 2004, an administrative measure taken by the General Security body in the interior ministry, permits children born of Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers to obtain renewable residence permits every three years free of charge. Before this, such parents had to pay US $200 for a renewable, one-year residency permit for their children. "In case they [children of foreign fathers] want to work, they have to apply for another kind of residence permit and a work permit, both costly depending on the job classification," said Rola Masri, project manager of the Gender Citizenship and Nationality Programme at the Collective for Research and Training on Development (CRTD).
"But the General Security decree says that Lebanese have the priority for jobs," she added. "So, besides the financial obstacle, it is often really hard for foreigners to be provided with such permits and actually work in Lebanon."

Children born of foreign mothers and Lebanese fathers, meanwhile, enjoy the right to Lebanese nationality.

Born to an Iraqi father and Lebanese mother, 25-year-old Rayan (not her real name) works as an accountant in a local company. "As I only have a three-year residence permit on the basis of being born to a Lebanese mother [and foreign father], I am working illegally," she said.

To work legally, Rayan would have to pay more than US $2,500 per year to obtain the necessary papers. "Considering the low salaries in Lebanon, I can’t afford to pay such an amount," she said.

Children of foreign men are not entitled to public health care, social welfare and are treated unequally in terms of education.

"Children of foreign fathers are allowed entry to public schools, but it’s often made difficult as Lebanese pupils have priority," said Masri from CRTD. "They often face refusal."

"Children of poor families end up being illiterate and excluded from society," she added.

While Lebanese pay the equivalent of US $100 annually to register in the public Lebanese University, Rayan had to pay more than US $600.

"And I could not take part in the university’s political life," she said. "As a foreigner, I have no right to vote and no right to register in a political party or to be a candidate."

Similarly, three-year renewable residence permits are available to foreign women married to Lebanese men, but not to foreign men married to Lebanese women, according to Iqbal Doghan from the Lebanese Working Women’s League.

Foreign men can request a one-year residence permit, which costs approximately US $700, provided they do not work.

"If ever they decide to work legally and get a work permit, General Security asks them to open a bank account with a huge amount of money – depending on their job classification – as a guarantee," Doghan explained.

"As an engineer, my husband was asked to open a bank account with US $200,000," said Nadira. "He’s now working in Saudi Arabia."

While no official statistics are available, CRTD Director Lina Abou Habib said the organisation was aware of some 1,100 Lebanese women married to foreign men.

Not eligible for any benefits, many such couples never bother to register, while others fear that the government might find out that husbands are working illegally.

"Many end up leaving the country," said Abou Habib, adding that racism also sometimes comes into play.

"While westerners will be easily given residence permits, it’s much harder for other Arabs and men from third-world countries in Lebanon," she said.

In November 2005, a national campaign called "My nationality, a right for me and my family" was launched on the initiative of several local civil society organisations.

The campaign is appealing to the government and parliament to assert the full citizenship rights of Lebanese women, calling for the "amendment of the articles deemed discriminatory against women".

However, the issue remains highly controversial.

"Politicians fear that if women are allowed to pass their nationality onto their husbands, many Palestinians will take advantage of this and start marrying Lebanese women en masse," said Ahmad Halimi of the Popular Aid for Relief and Development NGO that works with Palestinians in Lebanon.

Some 350,000 Palestinians refugees are registered in Lebanon with the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), while local NGOs estimate there could be a further 100,000 who are not registered.

"The two pretexts given are that allowing Lebanese women to give their nationality to their husband and children could have an impact on the sectarian balance, but also that it would help Palestinian refugees gain Lebanese nationality," explained Abou Habib.