Croatia: For refugees looking to enter Europe, it is the best possible short cut. A quick tap on their smartphone takes them to The Travellers’ Platform, a Facebook page that provides the answers to all their needs.
If those needs happen to include a fake Syrian passport so they can pose as a refugee, it will take moments to find someone who is willing to oblige.
On Monday, an undercover reporter required just one telephone call to a number listed on the site to arrange passage from Turkey to Greece, with a fake Syrian passport included, for £2,000 (Dh11,261).
A people smuggler using the name Modar Alnabwany had replied to a post from a Syrian woman wanting help to get to Greece after the first boat she tried sank. Minutes after Modar left the message, an Arabic-speaking reporter posing as an Egyptian called the number provided and asked how easy it would be to get to Europe as an Egyptian refugee.
“For us there is no problem, but the problem is there in Europe,” replied Modar. “It is just one hour’s trip and very safe. It is a rubber boat, a dinghy, it doesn’t sink.”
He offered to take the reporter from the Turkish port of Izmir to Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, for £800 per person, with children under 10 travelling half price. The meeting point would be in Istanbul, from where Modar would arrange transport to Izmir. The reporter said he was concerned that he would be deported when he got to Greece. Would it be possible to get fake Syrian papers?
“It is possible,” came the reply, “but it will cost you a lot — about $1,500 to $2,000 (Dh5,510-Dh7,345). It’s not guaranteed that it will work, as it’s forged, so there is a danger you will be discovered.”
Other people smugglers are more confident, having obtained genuine blank passports stolen from government buildings in Syria amid the chaos of its civil war, as well as the machines for processing them. All that is needed is a photograph to make them indistinguishable from the passports of real Syrians. Driving licences and identity cards are also on offer.
The Travellers’ Platform Facebook group, which is in Arabic, has 120,000 members, with more joining every day. Hundreds of new posts appear on a daily basis, both from refugees seeking help and smugglers touting for business. The group’s members appear to come from across the Arab world, including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Algeria.
There are also warnings from genuine Syrians that economic refugees and even terrorists are taking advantage of their plight to find a way into Europe. One member posted a picture of two men from Lebanon who he says have links to the Islamist Hezbollah group, and who have used faked Syrian documents to make it to Germany.
Another post shows a young couple from Lebanon posing in Germany after allegedly using fake Syrian documents to get there. The true extent of the fake passport scam is not yet known, but the fact that 10,000 fake Syrian passports were seized in Bulgaria, just one of the countries on the refugee route, gives an idea of the scale of potential forgery.
A refugee called Rita, 26, who once worked at a tourist office in Damascus, said: “All people pretend to be Syrian. You can buy Syrian passports in lots of places: in Greece, in Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey.”
Elias, an 18-year-old from Al Hasakah, Syria, crossing from Serbia to Croatia, said: “You can buy a Syrian passport for €200 or €300 Dh870 or Dh1,225). Iraqi people sell them in Istanbul in secret places. They can tell people’s countries from their look and they go to them on the street. There are people from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt who pretend to be Syrian.”
Victims of hijacking
The biggest victims are genuine Syrian refugees, who are livid that their plight is being hijacked by unscrupulous refugees from other Arabic-speaking countries who fancy their chances of getting into Europe. They fear that European countries will close their borders to refugees after being overwhelmed before Syrians in genuine need can get there.
In theory, people with fake documents should be weeded out by border guards using questionnaires about their claimed country of origin. Such questions — as posted on notice boards in Calais to help give refugees a taste of what they can expect — include: What does your national flag look like? What is the name of the next village to yours? Can you describe the coins and notes in your country? But one former immigration official said: “If someone says they are from an area of Syria that we don’t have much information about, they often simply end up getting the benefit of the doubt.
To really investigate someone properly and challenge their version of events takes a lot of work, and given the numbers of refugees we are talking about now, that is an impossible job. For a lot of governments the easy option is simply to accept what asylum seekers say at face value.”
Europe’s leaders accept they have no idea how many refugees there are, or where they are. Latest figures from the European Commission show that out of 160,000 illegal entries to Greece in the first half of this year, only 55,000 sets of fingerprints were sent to Eurodac, the Europe-wide system of tracking refugees.
In Italy the figure was 30,000 fingerprints taken from 92,000 illegal refugees. As Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said in a letter to national leaders this weekend, “we as Europeans are currently not able to manage our common external borders”.