Sat 18 Aug 2018

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Dealing in official documents at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul… We want to see the citizen’s face every morning

Syrian citizens flocking to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul - 25 May, 2018 (modified by Enab Baladi)

Syrian citizens flocking to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul - 25 May, 2018 (modified by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team 

Abdul Karim Bayoush arrived in Turkey two months ago from Idlib in order to obtain a passport from the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. He lived in Gaziantep before leaving for Istanbul to go on with the procedures of the “urgent” passport.

Before travelling, Abdul Karim, a media activist, was briefed about the necessary conditions and the financial costs imposed on the issuance of passports, including the wages of brokers who book the appointments of review and submission of applications, owing to the fact that all bookings through the website of the consulate are blocked for an unknown reason. However, things have changed since then, for he needs three appointments now instead of one and triple the cost of the usual fees of the passport, which used to be 800 dollars.

The 25-year-old Bayoush shared his experience with issuing a passport from the Syrian consulate in Turkey through Syrian’s Facebook Group in order to warn them against the difficulties he has been through, including his broker’s fraud, the “mood” of the employees and the way they were treating the citizens.

 

“We want to meet the citizen and see his face every day”

 

Few days after arriving in Turkey, Abdul Karim was given a date for the issuance of a passport, through a “broker” whom he paid 200 dollars in money order. However, when he went to the consulate on time, he was unable to complete the registration process. Therefore, a Turkish official received his document, asked him to return after 20 days and gave him a new appointment.

Abdul Karim insisted that the official should go on with the process according to the previous appointment, and asked for clarification as to why he was forced to book another date. However, the official did not respond and asked him to return after 20 days, giving him a new appointment.

Before leaving the consulate door, the young man spoke to the broker, who had booked the appointment before. The broker claimed that an error has occurred at the level of determining the type of the service when he filled the form. He told him that he had to book a new appointment to get the passport after the deadline, for another 250 dollars, which means that the second appointment cost him 50 dollars more than the first.

Travelling between Gaziantep and Istanbul was the biggest problem that Abdul Karim had to face, in addition to the expensive costs he had to pay before. During an interview with Enab Baladi, he explained that he did not carry a Temporary Protection card (Turkish Kimlik) so he had to travel by smuggling cars between the Turkish states, which were more expensive than regular buses.

After the first appointment, Abdul Karim was forced to book another one by the same broker. Twenty days later, he went to the consulate and completed the whole proceedings, including the payment of the fees for the urgent passport at the bank, which cost him another 800 dollars. The official postponed passport receipt for one week.

Until this point, the young man paid over 1,600 dollars, between the charged fees and the cost of travel between Gaziantep and Istanbul. He told Enab Baladi that he believes that the Syrian consulate had deliberately blocked appointment booking through its website, in order to gain “thousands of dollars through large networks of brokers.”

Not only did the Syrian consulate put Abdul Karim through such experience, but also most of the Syrians living in Turkey, who were forced to issue the passport so as not to lose tourist visa or work permits they were granted by Turkey, faced similar problems.

The young man was surprised by the absence of the seal of the consulate on his passport. He quoted the employee, who is responsible for handing over the passports as saying: “we are pleased to meet the citizen and see his face every morning. That’s why we did not stamp it,” meaning that Abdul Karim will have to go back again in order to stamp the passport.

The consular stamp is essential, and no Syrian can travel through international airports without it. The fifth page of the passport needs to be signed by the Minister Counsellor at the Consulate, Burhan al-Khatib.

After a lengthy discussion between Abdul Karim and the official, he asked him to book a third appointment in order to stamp the passport. According to the broker, such appointment will cost Abdul Karim another 150 Turkish Lira (31 dollars). However, Abdul Karim returned to Gaziantep and refused to book the third appointment due to the difficulty of the road and the “humiliation” he was subjected to during a month of travel.

He told Enab Baladi that the total cost he paid since the beginning of passport proceedings exceeded 2,400 dollars. This sum of money is equal to 1 million and 100,000 Syrian Pounds and not any Syrian refugee can afford it.

The number Abdul Karim has mentioned is not an official figure, and is related to the circumstances of each person, the broker and where he lives.

Enab Baladi met several other Syrian citizens who had to stand at the consulate’s doors for many hours. All of them paid large sums of money and felt injustice and exploitation in obtaining identity documents.

Enab Baladi also conducted an opinion poll through its Facebook page and asked followers to share their stories and the situations they have been through during the issuance of their passports from the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. Most of them agreed that the consulate was primarily responsible for complicating the process of issuing and signing official documents and that it is the prime beneficiary.

More than 150 users shared their experiences through commenting on the poll that Enab Baladi has carried out via Facebook and Instagram. Most of these stories talked about the large sums paid to the consulate when a passport was renewed or official papers were authenticated, or proxy services performed.

Mrs. Frihan Warda shared her story through Enab Baladi’s page and wrote: “I got an appointment through a lawyer office, who confirmed that the appointment was guaranteed and took 350 dollars. After hard work and excruciating wait and with all the disrespect and humiliation we were subject to, we managed to stand at the door of the consulate.”

Frihan added that she spent the rest of her day at the consulate, but she had to wait for another month to get the passport. Therefore, she had to pay for “tayyar” broker in order to take the passport.

Mr. Ramez Abu Steif pointed out that he renewed his passport about a year ago, and was surprised by the amount of the bribes paid, and described this as the law of the jungle.

Abu Steif shares Abdul Karim’s struggle travelling to the consulate, for he lives in the city of Urfa, located in the southernmost of Turkey, and he needs to travel for 20 hours to reach Istanbul, where the torment of alienation is added to the bureaucracy of public Syrian institutions.

Queues waiting in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul - 25 May, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

Queues waiting in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul – 25 May, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

Steps to obtain a passport from the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul:

  • Booking an appointment through brokers, whose cost ranges between 250 and 350 dollars(informal procedure – bribe).

  • Going back to the consulate in order to deliver the papers.

  • Waiting for security approval for one week to one month period.

  • Going back to the consulate on the same appointment and paying 300 dollars fees for the normal passport and 800 dollars for the urgent one.

  • Paying fees at the Turkish Bank for Foreigners and Expats (iş Bankası) in addition to 31 Turkish Liras as a commission.

  • Booking a new appointment for the ratification of the passport (an unnecessary procedure imposed to force the citizen to return to the consulate with a new appointment purchased from the brokers).

(Note: the Turkish Immigration and Passports Department requires ratification to ensure that the passport is not forged)

  • Going back to the consulate and paying the ratification fee 25 dollars in addition to another 31 Turkish Liras as bank commission.
  • Booking one appointment is not enough to enter directly, as one must queue in front of the consulate, which often postpones reviewings to the next day.
  • The brokers deployed in front of the door of the embassy collaborate with the police, which organize queues, and can be used to accelerate the entry through paying 50 to 100 Turkish liras.

 

Dealers and Customers…

Consulate brokers: We buy appointment from the Ministry of Foreign  Affairs and sell it to citizens

 

As a customer, Enab Baladi contacted a number of broker offices in Fatih area in ​​Istanbul, who are actively providing public booking services through social media websites.

After negotiating the price, some of them spoke about the difficulties of obtaining an appointment and the costs they have to cover in order to secure one.

Some broker offices stated that bookings were made by Syrian foreign ministry employees in Damascus or the consulate, who control the electronic booking system for money. However, brokers did not disclose how much they pay to buy these appointments.

About 1,700 users participated to vote on the following question: “Do you think that brokers are selling review appointment at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul without the knowledge of the consulate or are they coordinating with it?”

87% of those who responded stated that this was done in coordination with the consulate, while only 13% considered that the consulate had nothing to do with it, and the brokers are to ones to be accused.

 

 

The user Bassam Abdul Wahab commented on the poll saying that “the consulate knows about this and it has a share. The consulate and the Syrian government are the ones selling appointments.” Another user, Hamouda Hamdan, supported Bassam and commented: “50 dollars of the bribe is taken by the broker and the rest, which is about 250 dollars, goes to the consulate and the Consul gets most of it.”

The comments were almost entirely free from any pro-consulate statement. One of the users called for protests outside the consulate building to stand against what some users described as “theft and humiliation”.

Enab Baladi tried to contact the General Consul in Istanbul to notify him and contact the consulate using the telephone numbers mentioned on the official website. However, the answering machine was the only response and no direct contact could be established with the employees of the consulate.

By turning it into a trade with citizens, the Syrian consulate violates the Syrian Penal Code, which prohibits bribery, and punishes those who commit such acts with imprisonment.

50 dollars of the bribe go to the broker, while the rest, which is about 250 dollars, goes to the consulate and the Consul gets most of it.

Article 341 of the Penal Code states that “every employee and every person who is assigned to a public service, whether by election or by appointment, and any person who has been entrusted with an official mission, such as a judge or an expert, has sought or accepted for himself or another person a gift, promise or other benefit to perform a legitimate act of his job, shall be punished with imprisonment from three months to three years and a fine of one or two times the value of what  he has taken or accepted. (In this case the offence is a misdemeanour)”.

Article 342 states that “every one of the above-mentioned persons has sought or accepted for himself or for another person a gift, promise or other benefit to perform an act contrary to his function or to claim that it is part of his job or to neglect or delay what was his duty shall be punished with temporary hard labour and a fine not less than three times the value of what he has taken or accepted,” and this aggravated crime is considered a criminal offence.

The law also penalizes any employee who impedes the implementation or delay of implementation of laws and regulations, impedes the implementation of judicial decisions, or impedes the execution of any order issued by the concerned authorities.

 

Inconsistent consular decisions result in “further payment

The complexities of issuing passports to Syrians in Turkey and the ratification of official papers from the Syrian consulate in Istanbul were accompanied by a series of inconsistent decisions that governed the consular transactions over seven years, and pushed them to a level of complexity that does not apply to any foreign transactions of Syrians in the rest of the world.

These decisions are taken in sudden ways and are usually customarily circulated among people according to experience and expertise, or through official papers attached to the consulate’s doors, and their content is changed periodically.

Most of the decisions were related to the issuance of passports, their costs and the value of the additional fees, while some of them were issued by the regime government, and others are directly related to the consulate.

 

Normal and urgent passports and security approval

On May 1, 2017, the Director of the Immigration and Passports Department in Syria, Naji al-Numeir, announced the abolition of the label extending the validity of passports of Syrians around the world. This has been justified by the fact that some countries have been falsifying this label. Since then, Syrians have had to renew their passports, if their validity date has expired, with a new passport.

In December 2017, the Syrian consulate in Istanbul ordered those wishing to renew their passports to obtain security approval prior to the completion of the operation, after the consulate cancelled in April 2015 the requirement of security approval for the extension of Syrian passports.

The submission of the military service book has also been re-imposed on young men who have left Syria and who wish to renew their passports, even if they have left before they reach the age of service.

Two types of passports are issued to the Syrians at home and abroad, urgent and normal. In countries which contain Syrian diplomatic representations, the normal passport is issued during a period which ranges between 20 days and three months, while the Syrian consulate in Istanbul takes four months to issue it

The urgent passport requires from one to three days to be issued in most countries of the world, except for Turkey, which takes about a month to issue the urgent Syrian passport.

It is assumed that the applicant for the urgent passport is exempt from security approval, but the consulate imposed last March a decision to apply security approval to urgent and normal passports.

 

Another role of passport certification

The consulate is supposed to certify the passport as soon as it is issued, which was going on normally until last March, since the consulate issued the passports without the consular stamp.

The passport holder is required to book again through a broker and pay about 100 Turkish liras (25 US dollars) to hand over the passport and receive it certified two days later.

The decision added further burdens to the Syrians as they paid the cost of two dates instead of one, and are forced to spend two more days within the queues that gather daily in front of the consulate doors.

 

Renewal requires two years “except those upon which my Lord has mercy”

The Syrian consulate grants the applicants for the renewal of the passport a renewal of two years. Only in a few and rare cases, can the passport be renewed for six years.

Enab Baladi had previously contacted some of the Syrians’ operations offices. They said that the six-year period is granted only in certain cases. Young people between the ages of 16 and 42 cannot obtain a six-year renewal, unless a person is single or exempt from compulsory service.

Elderlies who had left Syrian territory under the auspices of the regime had previously been granted a six-year renewal, but some cases were rejected after three months waiting, and the passports’ holders had only a renewal of two years.

Women who left Syria under the regime auspices and have an exit stamp on their old passports can get a six-year renewal after applying at the consulate during the renewal date.

The decision that operations offices’ employees   stipulated that all newborns in Istanbul were granted a six-year passport after applying at the consulate, but Enab Baladi had monitored cases of children who had been granted a renewal of their passports for only two years.

 

Additional fees “without justification”

The Syrian passport is the most expensive in the world. The urgent passport costs up to 800 dollars, whereas the normal passport costs 300 dollars.

 

 

In March, the Syrian consulate in Istanbul imposed additional fees on Syrian visitors who wish to issue official documents or renew passports.

The additional fee is 31.5 Turkish liras (8.5 dollars) under the clause: “in exchange for services” paid at the consulate bank account.

The consulate did not circulate the decision but the bank, where the fees are paid, hung a written note which said: “Syrian brothers are kindly requested to pay 31.5 liras to the Syrian consulate in exchange for services.”

Exploitation of refugees to support the regime’s treasury with dollars

The passport renewal fees for millions of Syrians abroad, especially in Turkey, supply the Syrian regime’s treasury with foreign currency (dollars), which the regime has raised twice during the past years, in light of the inability of the opposition to issue passports that prove the identity of all Syrians in neighbouring countries, and make them dispense with the passports of the regime and their renewal in its consulates and embassies.

During the years of the revolution, the issuance of a passport in the embassies of the regime cost only 200 dollars, which supplied the regime treasury at the beginning of 2015 with nine million dollars, according to the director of the Department of Immigration and Passports, Ahmed Khamis.

However, in April 2015, the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, issued a decree stipulating the increase of the consular fee for granting passports to Syrians living abroad with 100% to become 400 dollars instead of 200 dollars, and 200 dollars to renew or extend the passport.

Khamis told al-Watan newspaper, close to the regime, in October 2015 that after the decision to raise fees, immigration revenues abroad amounted to more than 512 million dollars.

The second time the fees were raised was in April 2017, when the regime issued a decision prohibiting the extension of the passport with the label in force for years and forced the citizen to issue a new passport with new fees every two years, and set the price of the normal passport with 300 dollars, and the immediate and urgent passport with 800 US dollars, which made the fees for issuing passports to expatriates outside Syria the highest in the world.

The latest statistics issued by the Ministry of the Interior in the government of the regime, on the value of renewal of passport after increasing the new fees, were in September last year, when al-Watan newspaper reported that 41 million dollars is the value of the passports issued outside the country during the first nine months of 2017.

 

Chaos and congestion at the doors of the consulate … Is it the responsibility of Turkey or the regime?

Over the past years, Syrians in Turkey suffered when issuing their documents at the regime consulate in Istanbul, which has become the destination of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in all Turkish states in order to issue identity documents, in particular the passport, for legal residence, college applications or travel to other countries.

There were numerous ways for booking an appointment at the consulate during the past years. Electronic booking at the consulate’s official website was one of these ways until it was cancelled in August 2016 and replaced by booking directly at the consulate, which distributes numbers to the visitors standing at the door steps according to priorities and the consulate’s absorption capacity.”

However, this caused chaos and difficulty in obtaining official documents for the Syrians, prompting the consulate to re-establish the electronic reservation system in November 2016. But, this did not contribute to easing the congestion.

Many questions have been raised by the consulate’s visitors, particularly about the reasons behind the overcrowding and the lack of a better location and a larger number of staff in order to serve the large number of the consulate’s visitors. However, consular officials blamed Turkey for this, under the pretext that Ankara has refused to allow the increase of staff members due to political considerations as a result of relations between the two countries for years.

Blaming Turkey was also voiced by the chairman of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee in the People’s Council, Botross Marjana, who attributed the congestion in some embassies and consulates to the lack of employees.

“The problem is not with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the countries which closed the Syrian embassies and limited the number of employees, who should be on their territories,” Marjana told al-Watan newspaper on May 17. He also considered that “countries are putting pressure on the Syrian Foreign Ministry, causing great congestion, especially as transactions are not limited to passports, which constitutes a great pressure.

Although there was no statement from the Turkish side about the overcrowding and the suffering of Syrians at the consulate’s doors in Şişli in central Istanbul, a number of reviewers stated that during the past months they had noticed a number of Turkish staff helping Syrian staff.

800 dollars receipt for the issuance of Syrian passport delivered by the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul -25 May, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

800 dollars receipt for the issuance of Syrian passport delivered by the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul -25 May, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

“Immunity impedes accountability”

Consular staff members are doing whatever they like under the umbrella of law, which is the opposite of what many Syrians are thinking as they believe that the embassy building is located a in a foreign country therefore it is subject to its laws. International law defines the scope of domestic law enforcement to embassies and diplomatic missions.

The offices, which are dealing with the consulate in Turkey, are receiving huge amounts of money for buying appointments for Syrians in order to obtain ID documents from the embassy. The Syrian Law considers this as bribery crime and that’s why Syrians are wondering why the law is failing to hold these brokers and the members of the mission accountable, and whether Turkish law or Syrian law would be applied in this case.

“The law that is applied to the Syrian consulate in Turkey is the Turkish law,” said Ibrahim al-Albi, director of the Syrian Legal Development Program in an interview with Enab Baladi.

However, the application of this law is sometimes pro forma because members of diplomatic and consular missions enjoy immunity, which guarantees that they will not be prosecuted, held accountable or even tried by their accredited States. This immunity is guaranteed by international law in Vienna Convention.

Although the Syrian consulate in Turkey is subject to Turkish law, “Turkish forces do not have the right to storm or enter the embassy without the consent of the ambassador or the head of the diplomatic mission.”

The immunity granted to the members of diplomatic missions includes all the acts they commit and through which they break the law. They cannot be prosecuted, neither because of civil cases nor criminal offenses, regardless of whether the offense is related to their mission or personal life, and therefore they cannot be arrested.

The host State may require the mission to leave the State in case one of its accredited employees  break any of its laws, since these laws are to be respected, according to Vienna Convention. But at the same time, the State is not entitled to arrest one of them because of immunity.

The Syrian Penal Code did not exempt members of its missions from punishment, making them exceptions to the application of Syrian law abroad. Article 21 of the Syrian Penal Code states that “Syrian law is applied outside the Syrian territory for crimes committed by the agents of the Foreign Ministry and Syrian consuls even if they were granted immunity by International law.”

This text confirms that in case some Syrian missions escaped accountability for crimes they committed in the host countries, then the Syrian law will held them accountable.

Accountability in Syrian law begins with the withdrawal of immunity from the mission officer, at the request of the head of his mission.

As for the rights of Syrians to obtain personal documents, including passports, al-Albi asserted that international law guarantees people’s right to obtain such documents according to article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone everywhere has the right to the recognition of his juridical personality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a customary international law that every state must abide by and which guarantees every person’s right to legal recognition. For instance, the citizen has the right to obtain a passport that proves his identity. Any violation of this right is to be considered as violation of other rights, such as the right to health care and education.”

 

How are Syrians managing their affairs at other consulates?

During a search conducted on the procedures of the Syrian consulates in other countries regarding official documents and passports, Enab Baladi has revealed that the procedures of the Syrian consulate in Turkey are completely different from their counterparts in other countries, except for the financial fees.

Queues waiting in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul - 25 May 2018 (Enab Baladi)

Queues waiting in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul – 25 May 2018 (Enab Baladi)

In Germany, which has received about half a million Syrian refugees, one can go to the consulate to obtain a passport through standing in the line rather than booking an appointment online or through a broker. Syrian refugees told Enab Baladi that a person must come early in the morning to get his transaction done quickly.

Syrians in Germany are divided into two groups: the first has a three-year residence and the second a one-year residence.

The first group cannot obtain a passport from the Syrian consulate, and in case they did the German government won’t consider them as refugees anymore. The second group can obtain the passport because it does not enjoy the privileges granted to the long-stay residents.

The financial fees of the consulate in Germany are similar to those in Turkey, but the way of dealing with the issue and running things is different. The passport of Syrians in Germany is mailed after completing the registration process and paying the financial dues.

However, Syrians in Egypt do not suffer from the same complications in issuing their identity documents from the Syrian embassy there, and the booking of appointments for obtaining the documents is accessible through the website, which is available from one o’clock until three in the morning.

The period of normal passports issuance is set from two and a half to three months, while urgent passports are issued four days after the date of registration.

In Lebanon, where nearly one million Syrians live, an appointment for the issuance of a passport from the Syrian consulate is made through the website. However, all the appointments are far ahead, from a month and a half to two months, said people who got their passports to Enab Baladi.

The urgent appointment costs 800 dollars while the normal costs only 300 dollars, which means that the same fees are imposed in both Turkey and Germany. The brokers’ role consists of bringing the appointment closer in exchange for money, in addition to issuing ID documents for those who escaped compulsory service and those wanted by security forces.

Syrian transactions in the Syrian consulates in the Gulf countries differ from those of other countries. Syrians can easily register to get any document and the way employees are dealing with them is also different.

For instance, obtaining a passport in Kuwait does not require any appointment. One needs to visit the consulate and book an appointment through the employee stationed there.

According to one of the reviewers, any document would take from one hour to one hour and a half and the fees cost 245 KWD for the urgent passport and 92 KWD for the normal. The first urgent passport is delivered in no more than four days, including security approval, and the second in a month.

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