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For Syrians, Passports are Solid Gold

ALEPPO—On the border between Syria and Turkey, dozens of Syrians wait for the right moment to cross through one of the illegal passageways. They navigate their way through rough terrain and hop through barbed wire, careful to move stealthily and avoid being caught.

Written by Mohammed al-Khatieb Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

They go through this ordeal because they do not have passports.

Finally, they reach the Turkish side, exhausted from the journey.  One of them is Ammar, a young man in his 20s, forced to leave his war-ravaged country in search of work.

“My father was killed in an air strike, and I am the only one who can work in my family,” Ammar recounted, trying to hold back tears. “I had no choice but to come to Turkey illegally and try to find a job here.”

Ammar is becoming an increasingly common figure for Syrians inside and outside the country. Over 2 million of his countrymen have fled, many without documents, while others are wanted by the security forces or trying to avoid army duty and thus unable to renew their passports.

According to Syrian law, men cannot obtain passports until they finish their military service or unless they secure a deferment from the Department of Defense, usually for education or health reasons. In such cases, a man may be granted a two-year passport, but those documents have expired since the revolt broke out in March 2011. And due to the scarcity of army recruits and two and a half years of defections, the government is beginning to clamp down on such exceptions.

For others who are wanted by the Syrian intelligence for their activism, there is no way to apply for a renewal, whether inside or outside the country.

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“I managed to escape from the post where I was doing my military service, and because of that my name has been given to every Syrian intelligence checkpoint. Now I am a fugitive, and I cannot obtain a passport or an ID,” said Ammar.

Even for those who manage to cross into Turkey illegally, their escape from Syria does not fix the problem of securing their futures. Students need passports to complete their academic studies abroad, and all need passports to travel to a foreign country.

A $2,000 Passport

The Turkish government long turned a blind eye to Syrians entering their territory illegally, granting extra leeway due to the war situation.  But in the wake of fierce clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and one of the extremist groups affiliated to al-Qaida, Ankara has started to tighten border controls.

Those desperate for a way out have since turned to brokers and those close to the Syrian security services. For a staggering $2,000, one can purchase a Syrian passport on the black market. A legal passport costs under $50.

Raed, 23, was able to get a passport after weeks of negotiations. Today, he is $1,500 worse off, but relieved.

“Now I can travel to any country in the world. I can seek a better life with this passport,” he said.

Opposition Unable to Issue Passports

Syrian activists have launched a campaign online, demanding that the opposition Syrian National Coalition begin issuing its own passports. Their goal is to create an alternative travel document for all Syrians, and also to help prevent the Syrian Intelligence from keeping tabs on their movements.

But the opposition has been unable to form a transitional government, and until this happens, the passport is a distant hope.

According to Coalition member Yassir Zakri, the United Nations is the reason for the delay. “France has made it clear that they are ready and willing to print passports issued by the Coalition, if the U.N. agrees. Until now, the U.N. has not,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Coalition continues to negotiate. And Syrians without passports continue to wait—or pay dearly.

This article was translated from Arabic by Zain Frayha.

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