On a night bus in the middle of the Italian capital Rome, Ahmed, in his clearly Egyptian accent says: "I am from Syria." His eyes spoke volumes as they betrayed his fear and hope that I will not expose him.
The young man gave me a strong motivation to start a real investigation: Are there really those who claim being Syrian, to receive asylum in European countries?
Ahmed, like many others, arrived in Italy by sea. Here he began to play the role of a refugee escaping the scourge of war in Aleppo, searching for safety away from the sounds of daily shelling and clashes—until he reached Sweden.
His story seems Syrian par excellence. He tells about the terrible scenes of corpses and shelling, as well as stories not different from those someone who actually lived and witnessed the war might tell.
The Egyptian's story he told to the Swedish authorities almost secured him an asylum, if it were not for the Dublin Convention, which meant he had to be returned to Italy.
A Plethora of Stories
At a refugee camp in the Danish capital of Copenhagen Rozana met Ilham, a 20-year old lady speaking in a marked Moroccan accent that is hard to conceal. Being aware of this fact, she attempted to answer our questions in no more than two or three words.
The young lady spoke about escaping out of the Yarmouk refugee camp[the largest camp of Palestinanin refugees in the south of the Syrian capital Damascus], after the war there raged between factions she neither could identify, nor tell exactly if the regime was part of or not. It also seems that she had not prepared her story well enough as, when asked about how she left the camp—about six months ago as she said she had, during the most intense period of the siege of Yarmouk—she said she simply left by boarding public transportation, without passing any military checkpoint or the like. This made discovering her fabrication quite simple.
Abu al-Abed, on the other hand, was far ore forthcoming, saying in his clear Lebanese accent: "I am not from Syria, I simply do not wish to stay in Lebanon."
Abu al-Abed is not the least bit embarrassed to explain the whole story by saying: "I simply did not have any other choice but to claim I am Syrian. You cannot seek asylum here just because you no longer want to stay in your country," adding: "I will not go back to Lebanon, and that is it."
The Role of Fraud
In most cases, an application for asylum requires proper ID to be attached with the refugee's full data. As such, anyone able to claim to be Syrian can ask for asylum, if they can secure Syrian ID. This where the document forgers come in.
This type of activity has actually flourished in the fertile environment created after the collapse of the regime government in the areas of northern Syria.
Osama—a pseudonym for a young Syrian in his twenties—lives in Turkey, and has been in the business of forging Syrian documents for about a year and a half now. He says: "We can issue a forged ID card for two to three hundred US dollars and a personal photo. To us, this is our business."
Osama insists that most of those resorting to such documents are actually Syrian, who were prevented from renewing their passports by the regime, and who were pushed to resort to such a solution.
He adds: "The documents are printed inside Syria and then transported to Turkey. They are then sent from there, via a diverse network of media to the applicants, after they sent the required amount." When questioned whether he feels it is his duty to verify the identity of the end user of the forged documents, he acerbically comments: "Our duty is to do an excellent job. We are not a security authority, to check and verify identities."
Most European countries actively scrutinize the identity of all asylum seekers. And while some sylum-seekers posing as Syrian nationals do succeed, others fail in their attempts.
Rozana spoke on this issue with Marie, a German activist engaged in assisting refugees and offering them with legal consultancy related to asylum requests.
Mary explains that the German federal authorities, if in doubt of the documentation submitted by an asylum seeker, will actually suspend the application, and launch a legal process through which to confirm the identity of the asylum seeker. She adds: "Authorities will certainly not grant asylum to those anyone who they doubt is an impersonator."
Sarah, a Syrian working as a translator with Italian legal authorities, says: "Yes, it is our duty as translators alert authorities if we felt that the asylum seeker accent is not Syria. We are usually asked about this after the translation sessions, and we have to provide our honst and neutral opinion."
The numbers of asylum seekers impersonating Syrians is, clearly, hard to determine with any degree of certainty. Yet, as happens in every crisis, the misfortunes of some people are a benefit to others.