As Syria’s struggles continue, we see traveling ghosts and unraveling hosts

With Syrian asylum seekers receiving preferential treatment, the market for real and fraudulent Syrian passports and other documents has grown exponentially this year, as has media coverage of this marketplace. By September 2015 fraudulent documents were so readily available that a journalist bought a Syrian passport with the photo of the Dutch Prime Minister—delivered in 40 hours for 750 euros. Another ordered a Syrian passport, driver’s permit and an ID card, with his own photograph and the name of a deceased Syrian for $2,000—using captured blank Syrian forms. Full-service, online venues including the Travelers Platform Facebook group with 120,000 followers provide access to people smugglers, fake passports, and diplomas.

This trail of documents, while providing good copy with their take on fake documents, shadowy criminal gangs, and forgers (as well as mysterious terminology like “ghost travelers,” or those traveling on passports of look-alike relatives or friends) are an outcome of a surge in refugees, not a cause. So the real question is why the sudden surge this year, which led to the jump in demand for documents and to political divides in Europe? Germany’s changing tone on migrants may have fed the flow but the massive surge in refugees predates the famous Merkel statements about letting in hundreds of thousands. Indeed it was in response to the surge in refugees that the German government made those welcoming statements. These positive statements were countered by nativist narratives, fed by dramatic stories of fraudulent documents and waves of illegal “migrants” and potential terrorists invading Europe. Among others, this appears to be the perspective of the Hungarian prime minister, who says that the overwhelming majority of the refugees are economic migrants. The Slovakian prime minister puts the number of economic migrants at up to 95 percent. Actually the number of those that might be termed economic migrants is small: 90 percent of those arriving in Greece this year were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with well over half being Syrians. Even if one adds those crossing the Mediterranean into Italy, these three nationalities still account for 75 percent of the total of nearly 350,000 as of July 2015. Most are from countries that have been eligible for asylum in Europe for years. In 2014, the success rate for first time European Union asylum applicants for international protection was 95 percent for Syrians, 89 percent for Eritreans, 70 percent for Iraqis, 62 percent for Afghans, and 60 percent or so for Iranians (see here and here). As for the terrorist angle, there are enough Western extremists in Europe and some 4,500 and counting in Iraq and Syria that present a more immediate and longer-term threat and come ready with valid and reusable Western passports. “Why bother with a fake Syrian document when you can fly in?” asked Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch.

What the growing refugee numbers in Europe and elsewhere highlight much more are two phenomena that will have a lasting impact on the future of Syria and the Middle East. One is the growing number of mostly young, often middle-class and educated Syrians and others making their way to Europe—the very population aging Europe needs and sadly the very population Syria and other conflict countries desperately need to rebuild. As bad as the situation of the refugees we see daily on television is, they are the ones who can afford the sums needed for the journey to Europe. The trip can cost $2,500 or more per person, paid to people smugglers who arrange passage.

The other, more urgent, phenomenon is the tragedy of poorer refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, desperate to escape a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. Here again, Europe beckons, so poorer families often pool their resources by getting a passport for a male family member, hoping for eventual reunification in Europe. For most, however, worsening conditions in Jordan and Lebanon bring further misery as support structures start to crumble and the U.N. faces serious funding shortfalls. The UNHCR faces a budget shortfall of 65 percent for 2015 and the United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, which brings together humanitarian agencies and covers development aid for the countries bordering Syria, had as of August received just 37 percent of the $4.5 billion appeal for needed funds this year. The over 2 million refugees in both countries face “tightening restrictions, growing tensions with locals, and decreasing support from international aid agencies.” With savings gone and the World Food Program facing funding shortfalls, food rations are down to 50 U.S. cents daily in Jordan and Lebanon. Food delivery to 230,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan was terminated in mid-2015 due to a lack of funds. The influx into Syria from Jordan reached 200 persons a day in September—many then going to Turkey. Aside from being a transit point for Europe, many Syrians previously hosted elsewhere or coming directly from Syria now head to Turkey since they have access to greater resources. Even there, the politicization of the refugee issue and the economic slowdown have made the country less welcoming. 

Clearly there is a moral responsibility to assist those fleeing war and persecution in their countries. Yet, if the flow to Europe is to stop, the focus should be on assisting Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Even if Germany does take in 800,000 refugees and other countries take in more, there are over 4 million refugees and some 8 million internally displaced Syrians. If something urgent isn’t done to focus on the plight of this stock of refugees, next spring and summer could make this year look easy.