Forgers doing a roaring trade in fake Syrian documents
From the streets of Azaz you can look north and see the hills of southern Turkey, just a few kilometres away in the distance. The closeness is jarring. On the Turkish side life goes on as normal - the children go to school, and shoppers go to the souk. But in Azaz, on the Syrian side of the border, the past three years have rolled past in waves of misfortune - bombing, armed clashes, and a dark period of domination by a hardline extremist group that displays the severed heads of its enemies on the streets as a warning to others that they best play by its rules.
It’s no surprise that many of the people in Azaz, and in countless other towns like it across Syria, are desperate to leave. It is thought that a million Syrians have sought sanctuary in Turkey, while at least a million more are in Lebanon and about as many again are in Jordan. Thousands of other Syrians have taken the risky illegal journey into Europe, putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers in the hope of claiming asylum once they are there.
For those who have fled into Turkey, having the right documentation is crucial. The refugees who have passports know that they can stay in the country without fear of deportation. Those who don’t face a nervous existence as a non-person. A roaring black market trade in fake documents has subsequently sprung up to meet the desperate demand.
The rough passage into Turkey
In Turkey, some Syrians stay in the refugee camps that have been set up by the Turkish government, but the majority are in the towns and cities, where they try to negotiate an unfamiliar language, a baffling bureaucracy, and a cost of living far higher than in their native Syria.
The Turkish government has largely been accommodating to the Syrians who have fled across its border. Those with valid passports are allowed free access and given residency status. But for those who do not have passports, life in Turkey is far more complicated.
To leave Syria they have to pay smugglers to help them cross the border illegally, and once they are in Turkey they must stay in the camps or risk being sent back to Syria if they are caught by the Turkish Jandarme that patrol the border region.
Even those who do have passports know that it is only a matter of time before this precious documentation will run out. Men who have not completed their military service in Syria are issued with passports that are only valid for two years, and many of the young Syrian men who are living in Turkey left their country precisely because they were about to be called up to serve in Assad’s army.
Now, as the conflict enters its fourth year, time is running out for the hundreds of thousands of people who left Syria on a valid passport.
Once their passports expire, they have to go to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul - a tiny, crowded office that is only open for two hours each weekday morning.
There, they hand in their renewal applications and wait for them to be sent to Damascus to be approved. The whole process takes up to six months, and if you’ve been involved in the Syrian opposition or you’ve defected from the military, renewing is likely to be impossible altogether.
“The system in Syria is that you are considered a terrorist,” said one man, who had started queuing at 7am to hand in his renewal papers and did not want to give his name out of fear of reprisal.
“They will do an investigation into you in Damascus, and then if they find nothing about you they will start to process the application.
“It takes between four and six months for the passport to come back, and you will live without a passport for this period of time. They don’t care if you have residency papers or not. They don’t care if you are in the camps or on the streets.”
It’s little wonder, then, that men like Youssef are doing a roaring trade. Youssef is not his real name, it’s just one of five different identities that he uses, each with documents to back it up.
He is one of three passport traders in Azaz. Just come to him, and for $1,500 you can buy a genuine Syrian passport – no waiting, no investigation, and no short expiry date if you’ve skipped military service.
If you’re after a renewal sticker, that will cost you just $100.
Youssef has been in the forgery game for a while, after getting a lucky start in the business. “Under the regime it was hard to get the papers that would let you take your car over the border into Turkey,” he explained.
“I’d applied to the office in Aleppo, but it was not accepted, so I had the idea to make my own papers. I did it, and at the border the papers worked.”
Once he realised that he had a knack for copying documents, he started selling his forgeries to other people.
Before the start of the crisis in Syria Youssef’s biggest sellers were marriage and degree certificates. But when the revolution erupted, young men started coming to him asking for the papers that would allow them to delay the start of their military service.
Then he noticed a shift.
“People’s passports started to expire so they brought them to me and I scratched out the date and replaced it,” he said.
Last year he found an even better solution – Youssef’s started buying blank passports and renewal stickers from a corrupt regime official. The documents he sells now are indistinguishable from those issued by the regime because they are exactly the same documents.
The only difference is that when Youssef sells a passport, no data about the person who has bought it is filed with the regime.
Bilal defected from his military service at the beginning of the revolution in 2011, and briefly fought with the Free Syrian Army before fleeing across the border into Turkey. He paid $1,000 for his passport - he got a discount because the trader was his friend. It was a lot of money for him - almost a whole month’s wages - but he says it was worth every penny. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
Bilal says he paid the money because he had no other options.
He defected from the military at the start of the revolution and briefly fought with the rebels before leaving and starting a new life in Turkey.
Although he found a flat and a job with an aid organisation, he had no passport and therefore no residency permit. If he’d been caught, he could have been sent straight back to Syria.
Now Bilal has a real passport in his real name that is valid until 2019. He has even travelled outside Turkey on it, no problems.
“The only place I would be worried about travelling to are Lebanon and the regime areas of Syria, because my name is on the regime blacklist,” he said.
Youssef says that he is now selling up to thirty passports and renewals every single month. It has become the largest portion of his business. “No-one wanted fake passports before the war,” he said.
Yet he insists that he would prefer not to do it - not because of the three year sentences that are handed down for forgery in Syria, but because the people who buy his passports are already poor and desperate.
“These people need passports, some of them sell their wife’s gold to buy them,” he said. “It would be easier for us if the Syrian National Coalition [the political opposition] issued passports for us, it would be better.”
But with no end in sight to the bloody conflict in which more than 150,000 have been killed, a legitimate solution is likely to stay out of reach for many. For Bilal and countless other Syrians like him, black market passports are the best and only option.