In the picturesque setting of Qeshm Island, home to a majority Sunni Muslim and ethnic Arab population, a unique problem is silently getting worse.
The Persian Gulf island, known for its natural beauty and cultural diversity, is home to a population of unaccounted and undocumented people whose lives, from birth to death, remain unrecorded and unacknowledged.
Many of the people living on this island of pristine beaches and vibrant bazaars lack Iranian national identity cards.
Their existence within the borders of Iran – but without this basic civic tool – raises questions about identity, citizenship and human rights.
Narges, a local lawyer and children's rights activist, whose real name is being withheld for her security, offers critical insights into this issue in an interview with IranWire.
She says the matter of identity cards on Qeshm is fraught with complexities and that it transcends bureaucratic hurdles – turning into a security concern.
"If you attempt to gather statistics regarding the population lacking proper documentation," Narges says, "the Ministry of Intelligence would respond with a heavy-handed approach."
"Local residents would also regard you with apprehension, fearing potential government repercussions for any involvement in such inquiries," Narges adds.
The official silence surrounding the unrecorded lives of many residents underscores the vulnerability these individuals face in their lives.
Identity cards across Iran has also evolved into a security concern. The government has, for instance, stopped issuing birth certificates to citizens in Sistine and Baluchistan province in the wake of repeated and sometimes violent protests after every Friday in the city of Zahedan.
Zahedan is the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province – home to Iran's Sunni Baluch minority of up to 2 million people.
The city has seen protest rallies almost every Friday since September 30, 2022, when security forces killed nearly 100 people in the deadliest incident in the nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini.
In an interview with Iran's state news agency IRNA last year, Ansieh Khazali, vice president for women and family affairs, addressed the severity of the situation.
"In the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, Qom, Yazd, and Khorasan, a considerable number of individuals lacking birth certificates have been identified. This has left them unable to access proper education and healthcare,” Khazali said.
Khazali’s statement confirms that there are some statistics pertaining to women and children without birth certificates. But these statistics are imprecise and have not been verified by official bodies.
"Qeshm is one of the places where civil rights activists, including those advocating for children's and women's rights, are notably scarce," said Narges, the children's rights activist. "There is a distinct lack of interest in pursuing these cases."
"Part of this disinterest can be attributed to the religious differences in the region, and the other part is influenced by the specific security issues in these areas. A similar situation prevails in Sistan and Baluchistan,” Narges added.
“Speaking with families about their issues is exceptionally challenging. In these regions, the presence of civil activists and advocates for children's rights is nearly non-existent. Local residents are often cautious of outsiders who venture into their communities to offer assistance," she said, explaining that they fear it will expose them to the security services.
This inherent suspicion and reluctance to engage with civil activists further exacerbates the difficulties faced by those without proper documentation in these regions.
And in a stark revelation, the director general of the support affairs and empowerment office at the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare, announced on October 8 that a staggering 43,000 children without birth certificates have been identified in Iran.
These children, born to Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers, face a challenging existence
A report released by the Iranian parliament’s social studies office of the research center, in 2021, disclosed that over 61% of families with undocumented children belong to the poorest three deciles of Iranian society.
Fifty percent of these children lack identity documents, including birth certificates, and 46% of children either do not attend school or are forced to leave school early which destroys their future prospects.
A mere 3% of these children and their families receive assistance from support institutions like welfare and relief committees.
Many Iranian women are meanwhile marrying undocumented foreign nationals, often laborers from Afghanistan or elsewhere, without documents or proper marriage licenses.
Narges says she has spoken with village councils, urging them to inform these foreign nationals that only through official marriages can their children obtain birth certificates, to then secure Iranian residency documents.
She added that Iranian women are marrying these undocumented laborers out of poverty while the foreigners were hoping to secure residency permits through their marriages.
And meanwhile the surge of investment to Qeshm, from major cities like Tehran, with investors seeking to build seaside villas and tourist retreats, has also led to an increase in foreign laborers. The population of undocumented children has therefore risen.
According to Narges, individuals lacking identification cards range from children under 18 to adults, some even up to 30 years old.
Many of the children from these marriages have attended school without being officially registered, leaving them without any educational certificates, unrecorded in the Ministry of Education's database, and lacking student identification numbers.
Narges shares the story of one child from Qeshm who, to receive a birth certificate, needs to navigate a complex web of marriage and parentage proofs in a country where legal framework dictates that citizenship is primarily passed from the father and that fathers holds more rights over a child’s life.
"The child's father is from Afghanistan and has been missing for 11 years,” Narges says, “And the mother, an Iranian citizen, is burdened with her own struggles, including addiction.”
The child, for whom the mother wants to secure an Iranian birth certificate, cannot receive these without the absent father as he retains sole parental authority. The mother has been advised to obtain a divorce in absentia so that she can gain sole custody of the child – which will make her signatures legally valid.
The mother even contemplated trying to obtain a false death certificate of the father to be able to then register for child.
If a mother aims to alter her child's citizenship status, particularly for someone under 18, she must either secure the father's consent or obtain a divorce along with a custody order from the court.
This reality highlights the glaring gender disparities embedded within Iranian laws – underscoring the challenges women face in securing their children's rights.