Part One : Investigative Report by: Kamal Oskan and Adam Hussein
Sami (pseudonym) paid $ 1200 to obtain a Syrian passport through his consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul after three unsuccessful attempts. Each time, he incurred the trouble of traveling from Gaziantep to Istanbul, with the cost of a hotel reservation. In addition to being ambushed by individuals who are engaged in brokering.The cost of the Syrian passports is divided between a consular fee of $ 825 and a $ 400 fee for the broker, in return for booking the consulate at the consulate, this is despite the cost of travelling and staying in Istanbul for 3 days, which is the period required by the consular passport, which can be incurred by any citizen living outside the city of Istanbul.
Sami has paid these sums so as not to lose his job. He is an adviser to an international organization that provides support to the Syrian society to mitigate the effects of the war on them. Working with them requires official documents so that they can travel and attend conferences. The Syrian Passport was classified as the “fourth worst passport in the world” in 2019, and the second worst passport in the Arab world after the Iraqi passport, according to a classification issued by the Passport World Index, the number of countries that do not allow the Syrians to enter its territory without visa according to the indicator is 162 countries, while the countries that allow Syrians to enter their country without the “Visa” is 36 countries, but 27 of those States impose entry visa upon arrival, and 9 states only allow them to enter without a visa.
Syria is a state of multiple governments and passports.
The Syrian passport crisis began with the beginning of the popular movement in March 2011, although it existed earlier. Requiring many security measures to obtain them, such as obtaining political security approval, which was denied to political opponents. This crisis turned into a phenomenon, after the influx of thousands of Syrians to neighboring countries, especially Turkey, across the land border to escape the battles and bombing in the areas of northern Syria, and the fall of most of the border crossings under the control of the opposition.Hence the passport crisis for anyone who came out irregularly.
The system used passports as a form of collective punishment for political opponents, activists, refugees and military personnel by denying them access to official documents, including passports, from any government body in light of the Syrian crisis. Anyone who is of legal age for compulsory military service can only obtain a passport after a review by the Recruitment Division and obtain the consent of one of them confirming that he is not required to serve in the military. The request for passports is an urgent need for every Syrian living outside the country, but the complicated procedures, the security and political approvals and the reviews of the recruitment people have deprived a large part of people to obtaining these documents through the Syrian consulates. Thus, obtaining the Syrian passport abroad have become a dream for most Syrians.
The Syrians were looking for other ways to obtain passports, even if they were forged, or to go to the opposition Syrian coalition with the start of the government formed in Istanbul to grant alternative passports issued in late 2014.
Government of a system of prevention to reap money
The regime felt the seriousness of what happened when the Coalition issued alternative passports in August 2014 and considered this step a derogation from its sovereignty and began working on two fronts: the first is legal regarding the publication of counterfeit passport numbers through INTERPOL International in September 2014 and Act No. 18, The passport was granted on 2/11/2014 and the new law provides for deterrent penalties for violators.According to some sources of the Ministry of the Interior, the new law came to limit the forging of visas and passports, after it spread greatly in the current circumstances in Syria.
The second was the Syrian authorities’ permission for their embassies and diplomatic missions to issue passports and renew them to Syrians living abroad, without reviewing the security services in Damascus … on April 21, 2015, according to a decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants to consulates and missions. The text of the resolution includes “raising consular fees for granting new passports to Syrians residing abroad to $ 400, or the equivalent in euros.” A new fee of $ 200 was also put in place to block the coalition and its passports. And then followed by another decision on March 29, 2017 stipulating that the consular fee for the granting of a passport or travel document to the Syrians be immediately and expeditiously fixed at $ 800 and $ 300 according to the role system (reservation).
The Syrian lawyer Rami Assaf, who lives in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, explains the legal cases of the Syrians in Turkey, that “leaving the Syrian territory without following the official procedures through the main outlets makes the owner of this criminal offense a sinner and the Syrian judiciary can punish him. “I do not think the judiciary can set up all these cases, but it remains a card to pressure all those who left the country illegally. This crime has a higher level of imprisonment to a minimum, and the judge can replace the prison sentence with a fine that is paid.”
As the crisis in the Syrian financial system worsened, additional measures were taken to obtain more funds through Syrian citizens abroad, including a reduction of the passport for two years after six years of non-renewal. Less than two years. The duration of the application is calculated as the passport is delayed for approximately 3 months for non-urgent regular applications. An application must be submitted within the last six months before the end of the passport, despite the large amounts paid.
Assaf considers that the lifting of the fees by the Damascus government is “an act of sovereignty and has full freedom to be determined in any currency as well … What contributed to encouraging the regime to do so is the requirement of some countries to recognize these documents to be certified by the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Syrian citizens to obtain passports from the Syrian consulates, so the system hit two birds with one stone. The first is financial, and the second is a sovereign security, through the confession of all those who left the Syrian territories illegally after reviewing the Syrian embassies and consulates and giving full information about him to obtain the passport “.
The large jump in passport fees was accompanied by an increase in the number of passport applicants in particular, following the increase in the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as a result of the ongoing war in Syria, and with many Syrians being arrested at airports because of forged passports or the passports they held. It is enough to pass through the Syrian consulate in Istanbul to see the queues of Syrians waiting for passports.
This is what we saw in front of the consulate on April 22, 2017, when Sami accompanied us on his third attempt to obtain a passport.The Syrian regime took these measures to deprive the interim government of the financial gains it might make and transfer those funds to the state treasury. The Syrian People’s Assembly stated that the decision was aimed at “facilitating the affairs of citizens abroad, preventing them from resorting to brokers and transactors, and speeding up the execution of their applications.” However, the hidden objective of this decision is to secure additional revenues to the state treasury. In Syria, the number of applications for passport in 2015, amounted to about one million requests from inside and outside Syria, an average of 5,000 requests per day.
“The amounts that the system earned due to the lifting of the fees on passports are undoubtedly very large,” said Dr. Imad al-Din al-Musbah, an opposition Syrian academic and associate professor at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at Qassim University. The system has boosted these amounts of “dollar” balances in the central bank in order to preserve the Syrian pound. We know that the lira is the last bastion of the regime. ”
“The passports issued by the Syrian government are estimated at one million passports annually, most of which are issued abroad via the Syrian consulates,” said Dr. Ahmed Youssef, a Syrian academic and economist. To the urgent need of them by expatriates or who left the country without documents, or who have expired the legal period of their passports. The system achieves an annual revenue of at least $ 500 million, which constitutes a strong extension of the state treasury in the present circumstances, characterized by almost complete cessation of the production machine. ”
Al-Yousef stresses that the system exploits the citizens’ needs. The Syrian passport gives the list of the most expensive passports in the world, and the fee for obtaining the urgent passport is $ 800, while the cost of securing the passport does not exceed $ 5. In a simple comparison between the cost of the Syrian passport and the US passport, there is a big difference in cost. The cost of obtaining US passports abroad from US consulates and embassies is only $ 35, according to instructions posted on the US embassy and consulate in Egypt.
How did it become a reality?
We tried to monitor the process of obtaining a passport through the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, after Sami was able to get a role from a broker. “This is the third time that I have been in the role of obtaining a passport from the consulate. The first time I was scammed by that broker, I lost $ 200 and was prevented from entering the consulate. ”
Sami paid $ 825 for a consular fee on March 20, 2017. In addition to $ 400 for the broker against booking the reservation and other travel expenses which exceeded $ 200, a travel ticket from Gaziantep to Istanbul and vice versa. Days, bringing the cost of the passport to $ 1400. The appointment was made electronically on the website of the Syrian consulate, but it was finally suspended, opening doors to brokers and fraud networks active on social media sites and publishing advertisements for their services. The Syrians are often the victims of these networks, as happened with Hala (a pseudonym) and her sister, who was escorted from the city of Kizilba in Mardin to Istanbul on the basis of a date booked through a broker’s office there.On the consulate door, the employee told her that the date was not fixed and fake; Hala contacted the broker asking him to return the amount she had paid for $ 200.
We spoke to Hala and her sister, who wanted to get passports to join their family in a European country and had to borrow money from relatives, which cost more than most Syrians living in Turkey can afford.These large amounts, which are estimated at half the value of consular fees for the urgent role, citizens have to secure so that they can reach the offices of the consular staff, to provide the papers to obtain the passport, which is a right of the state to grant them free of charge, forcing many who do not. They can pay these for a regular passport, go to what is known as Coalition passports knowing they are forged, in the hope that they can manage some of their affairs.
The Game played by Consulate, Offices and Brokerage for the reservation An application has been created at the consulate site to electronically block the role, to block the exploitation of employees and brokers. However, what is happening today about electronic booking is a new method of exploitation. This is clearly shown once a person enters the consulate’s website to reserve a role. Or not responding. On the other hand, brokerage firms are able to give an appointment easily, this is the consulate game and brokering offices.
There is a prior agreement between the parties to open and operate the system on specific dates, through which the names of all persons requesting the role are registered through brokering offices. A copy of these names is sent to the employees to be compared with the names of the role through the System, Any record name is rejected electronically and is not on the list provided to the consular staff from the authorized brokering offices.This is confirmed by one of the brokering offices in Istanbul, after we contacted him to inquire about what is happening. “Our office buys the role from a narrow network connected to the consulate, and we pay them for every role $ 350 in advance, and any name or role number is not through this narrow network and if not have paid the required amount is not accepted from the consulate “The names already paid through the offices are available to consulate staff.
Ahmed explains that fraud cases occur by some brokers or offices operating in the field of transactions, because they rely on electronic booking during the opening of the System only, and this is not enough to reserve the role systematically, if there is coordination with the consular staff, By the broker for each name; so the applicant is surprised when he comes to the consulate on the basis of the role reserved for him, the lack of a role of his own, because the staff already know the names that paid the agreed amount.
“The issue is tied to dependence,” Ahmed said. “The Turkish state no longer relies solely on passports issued by the regime and with the exclusive approval of the consulate in Istanbul.” Thus increasing the demand for passports issued by consulates of the system, as it is necessary for everyone who resides in Turkey to travel or to obtain a residence.
This investigation was carried out by the Iraqi Network for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ) and published in collaboration with Al-Menasa. Translated into English by Dr. Pshtiwan Faraj