Paris: A couple of years ago it would be hard to imagine that a Syrian passport would actually be valuable, but a new industry of producing and selling fake Syrian passports has emerged.
On the streets of Paris, vagabonds have been spotted waving Syrian passports for sale.
Beggars also have been using the passports to solicit money from people who empathise with the plight of Syrian people.
One of them stands facing Yves Rouche, the famed Parisian fragrance shop. “Help this Syrian refugee!” he shouts, while waving the Syrian passport.
When Gulf News asked the man why he was waving his passport, he admitted that people tend to give more money to Syrian beggars.
Another man carried a sign in French that read: “A Syrian family of eight: Help Us.”
He was wearing a traditional Arabic jalabiya and slippers — despite the harsh French winter — to sound and look Syrian.
Nisreen, a Paris-based Syrian resident, spoke to him in Arabic and when he replied, she opened her purse and gave him money, telling Gulf News: “I always test them before paying, to hear their accent and make sure they are real Syrians. Some just wave Syrian passports claiming to be Syrian, when they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria or some other Arab country.”
Syrian passports have indeed become a much sought after commodity since the start of the conflict in mid-2011.
Most are used to the secure safe passage of their Syrian holders from their war-torn country to the safety of Europe, but many non-Syrians are buying them off the black market nowadays, seeing a Syrian passport as equivalent to a one-way ticket into the EU.
“It elicits sympathy followed by official entry into at least one European country disguised as Syrian refugees, and a monthly allowance from their hosts,” says Munzer Saleh of the Passport and Immigration Office in Damascus, who, speaking to Gulf News, adds: “Most of the fraud is done in Turkey and by middlemen in Syria, and most of the buyers are poor people from North Africa.”
He takes out a computer list and says: “Look at these names, over 200,000 passports, either fake or stolen, currently out there, waiting to be tracked.”
Ahmad, a cab driver in Paris from Morocco, told Gulf News that he arrived in Paris in mid-2015 using a fake Syrian passport.
Refusing to give his real name fearing persecution by French authorities, he added: “My passport was not fake; it was a real Syrian one, validated by Syrian authorities. I bought it for 2,000 euros after selling all that I owned. It belonged to a soldier in the Syrian army killed in the Syria war. Of course I don’t know what he looked like but we were both born in 1990. His photo was replaced with mine and it passed with French authorities.”
“Everybody is buying fake Syrian passports” said Abu Ali, a dealer who lives in Jaramana town 10km southeast of Damascus and lives off selling travel documents to ordinary Syrians.
Before the war started in 2011, he used to handle legal documents at the Palace of Justice in Damascus and is well versed with Syrian laws.
Syrian rebels who abandoned their arms and are illegible for official passports buy them from Abu Ali.
But he says he doesn’t sell to non-Syrians trying to get into Syria, obstensibly to join the insurgency.
The price of a plastic Syrian ID card starts at $500 (Dh1,836), and reaches up to $1,500 depending on its quality, he explains.
But an authentic passport can cost anywhere between $5,000-$7,000.
“We also provide advice on travel routes, and fake European IDs for refugees in Greece, so they can use them to reach countries like Sweden or Denmark.”
But life became far more difficult for passport traders after November 2015, he says, when after a series of terrorist attacks hit Paris claiming 129 lives.
A Syrian passport was found near the remains of a terrorist who had detonated a suicide vest at the Stade de France.
French authorities said that the passport was “definitely” fake.
In Damascus, authorities face an uphill battle trying to combat the fake trade.
In the past, document renewal was used as a political tool to punish dissidents, army deserters and regime defectors — it was mandatory for the person wanting to renew his passport to show up in person.
Few showed up as they knew they would likely be arrested on the spot.
But now, with the war going into its sixth year, the cash-strapped government decided to waive the rule.
Shockingly the governtment now renews all passports — even those on the “wanted” lists.
The price of a single passport for Syrian residents skyrocketed from 1,600 Syrian pounds in 2011 ($32) to 30,000 SP ($60) in 2016.
For those living abroad, it now costs up to $400.
“If one million passports are renewed in one year from abroad, that makes $400 million in revenue just from printing new travel documents — not a bad contribution to the war effort,” Saleh said.