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RefugeesEuropeans concerned over thriving trade in fake, stolen Syrian papers

Published 9 September 2015

The EU countries trying to formulate a cohesive policy to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to enter the EU zone are now facing a new problem: The burgeoning trade in stolen Syrian identity documents. Most European countries are yet to agree to accept more than a token number of Syrian refugees, but Germany and Sweden have made it known that while the EU is grappling with the issue, the asylum system in both countries would offer preferential treatment for Syrians. This preference has made Syrian passports into a must-have document for non-Syrian immigrants who would otherwise not be likely to qualify as refugees.

The EU countries trying to formulate a cohesive policy to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to enter the EU zone are now facing a new problem: The burgeoning trade in stolen Syrian identity documents.

Most European countries are yet to agree to accept more than a token number of Syrian refugees, but Germany and Sweden have made it known that while the EU is grappling with the issue, the asylum system in both countries would offer preferential treatment for Syrians. This preference has made Syrian passports into a must-have document for non-Syrian immigrants who would otherwise not be likely to qualify as refugees.

Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the European border agency Frontex, said his agency found evidence that Arabs from outside Syria were buying counterfeit Syrian passports. He told a French television channel that the appeal to buyers lay in how “they know Syrians get the right to asylum in all the member states of the European Union.”

The Guardian reports that this trade in forged documents is a major concern not just Frontex, but to Syrian refugees themselves, who are now worried that proliferation of forged Syrian documents would undermine their own chances of asylum, or slow down the application process.

Hashem Alsouki, whose application for asylum in Sweden was profiled by the Guardian earlier this year, told the paper: “The situation with the passports is very worrying, and it might be the reason why my application for asylum is taking a long time. The officials have to spend more time working out if someone is a genuinely a Syrian citizen.”

There is evidence that more and more Syrians are also using fake identification and forged papers to make their passage through Europe easier.

Refugees who leave Syria in an effort to get into the EU zone must get to Greece first. There are, however, two ways out of Greece. The more arduous track is the long hike through northern Greece and the Balkans into Hungary, and from there to Austria, Germany, and other destinations in northern Europe.

The second, and more expensive, way is to take a plane or a commercial ship – but this requires a national ID card and a passport, and those who do not have these papers must use fake documents.

European security and immigration authorities say that more and more Syrian are “borrowing” papers from relatives or friends who are of similar age and appearance. A Syrian might thus use what is now called a “ghost passport” to fly from Greece to an EU country, and then mail the passport back to its rightful owner after being granted asylum.

Other passports and IDs are stolen.

The Guardian Athens reporter found a dealer nicknamed Abu Karem offers all kinds of European passports to Syrians. Some are brand new, printed in Bulgaria, and they cost a few hundred euros, but these are almost worthless.

The much more expensive ones — costing up to €5,000 each — are real but stolen passports which come with stamps. The dealer will also replace the picture in the passport with that of the buyer.

Some dealers sell “packages” which include not only the fake documents, but also plane tickets.