Syrian passports: Electronic portal closed, brokers’ pockets open
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
Hundreds of Syrians live between reunification expectancy and despair due to the long wait on the electronic passport portal that does not work, while greedy brokers sell ‘reservations’ for sky-rocket amounts.
The Syrian regime’s Interior Ministry launched a new electronic service on its official website last November, allowing people who want to obtain passports to reserve an online date for residents of Damascus and its suburbs, seeking to lessen the crowd on the gates of the Passports Directorate.
After a week, the ministry circulated the electronic reservation service to all provinces in the regime-controlled areas.
Just three months after starting the work of the electronic portal, most Syrians complained about the impossibility of booking an appointment, and many of them considered it a port for theft, while others believe that the Syrian regime has set this hardship to slow the mounting migration.
The regime’s government said the priority in issuing passports for Syrians abroad and special cases, according to the Director of the Immigration and Passports Department.
Khaled Hadid, in an interview on the state-run TV, streamed on 23 February, said the “productive capacity” limits the directorate’s ability to grant the immediate passport, forcing it to give “priority” in obtaining it to residents outside the country, humanitarian cases, students and delegated employees.
Hadid attributed the ‘crisis’ to the economic sanctions imposed on the regime that delayed the arrival of the basic raw materials used in passport manufacture, adding the Covid-19 pandemic as another factor that led to the long waitlist on the electronic appointment portal.
Hope for a reunion, despair of long wait
In her attempt to describe her inability to obtain an appointment through the electronic portal, Reem (pseudonym for security reasons) said, “For ten years I have not met my brother, but once I saw a glimmer of hope, I found myself waiting for a new passport.”
Reem, 35, sold her gold necklace to get a passport where she will travel to meet her brother in Turkey, “but the matter is no longer related to just securing the cost of the passport, as I am in front of a useless website,” she added.
Nour, 49, who refused to give her full name for security reasons, lamented her bad luck by saying, “When I decided to travel with my husband and daughter to Erbil to meet my son after five years of absence since he obtained asylum in Germany, all attempts to obtain a passport were futile.”
“For years, I dreamed that my family would gather under one roof, but today I feel frustrated and that all my dreams were victims of a failed law that prevented me from meeting my children,” Nour spoke about the impact of the electronic portal system on her family.
Although the local pages on social media were filled with advertisements and video recordings explaining how to get an appointment, the online booking site still received Syrians with the phrase “no appointments available” if they were able to reach the step of booking an appointment.
The Director of the Informatics and Communications Department at the Ministry of Interior, Abdulrahman Abdulrahman, justified the inability to register at the present time through the electronic portal by its commitment to the absorptive and productive capacity of the immigration and passport branches in all provinces.
The platform is an automated program with some loopholes, based on determining a certain number of appointment requests, amounting to 2,400 per day, according to Abdulrahman.
During the first seconds of opening the platform, the system receives more than ten thousand requests for a role in order to obtain the passport, which leads to errors that make the platform not working, said the Interior Ministry official.
For his part, the Director of Immigration and Passports, Khaled Hadid, promised to solve the passport issuance crisis by increasing the “absorptive capacity,” along with the arrival of new raw materials for the manufacture of passports, starting from 15 March.
Portal for theft
Many Syrians considered the online booking platform a “theft port” by the Syrian regime and local brokers who quicken to request “fanciful” sums in return for booking an appointment to obtain a passport.
Many of the brokers’ adverts came to Reem’s friends and relatives in exchange for irrationally different amounts.
Reem says that the last broker she spoke to has asked for 400,000 Syrian pounds in return for booking the ‘appointment’ only, considering that the booking process turned into a “blackmail” of people who in severe need to travel.
Local social media accounts circulated many brokers’ advertisements, while the comments showed a state of anger and rejection of the ‘electronic reservation’ amid the high numbers of those wishing to immigrate or attempts to obtain an opportunity to reunite with family members in asylum countries.
Hassan, 29, said the e-passport reservation portal is no more than a port for theft. Such a conclusion was reached months after he tried to obtain a passport for his mother to meet with his brothers.
Hassan, who preferred not to reveal his full name for security reasons, was subjected to many fraud attempts by brokers.
“I was stuck between my mother’s grief and her urgent desire to meet my brothers and my refusal to be robbed by brokers and government department employees,” Hassan said.
According to residents who spoke to Enab Baladi, the bribery amounts and commissions required by the Passports Department’s employees and brokers increased illogically and within less than a month.
One of those in charge of issuing passports requested 1,500,000 SYP (about 600 USD) for issuing a passport within one day, and after a week, the required amount rose to 2 million pounds (about 800 USD), according to what Reem said.
In her turn, Nour said that she was obliged to pay 2,500,000 SYP (about 995 USD) to obtain a passport as she decided to travel alone without her husband and daughter due to their inability to afford the cost of three passports.
Amid the dreary waiting condition, the regime’s officials claim that they want to match the needs by setting the cost of issuing an immediate passport, within one day, at 100,000 SYP (about 40 USD).
The difficulties in conducting government transactions in Syria, including obtaining a passport, provided an opportunity for many Syrians to pursue brokering between residents and government employees.
The long war years have made of the Brokerage the main profession for a number of opportunistic and profiteering people who take the role of mediation between the seller and the buyer, in order to bring them together and complete various commercial deals quickly and easily, in return for a financial commission upon the completion of the transaction from both parties.
Dream and nightmare
Despite the deteriorating rank of the Syrian passport and the inability of Syrians to obtain a travel visa to most countries of the world, many people inside Syria and in asylum countries still need to obtain it.
The purpose of obtaining passports for Syrians in regime-controlled areas despite the high cost is the need to flee ailing economic conditions, and it is an attempt to reunite families separated by the Syrian conflict.
“For me, the passport is a dream and a nightmare too,” Reem reveals. Her hope of meeting her brother turned the passport into a dream, and waiting for the opportunity to obtain it made it a “nightmare” for her and many Syrians.
For the moment, the passport is the only ambition and the main obstacle for thousands of Syrians who wish an escape, Reem said, even though they are not welcomed by many of the world’s countries.
Bid to curb immigration or material interest?
Syrians have varied opinions about the reasons for establishing the electronic reservation portal, as some of them considered it a material interest for the Syrian regime, while others said it was an attempt to limit Syrians’ exodus.
According to an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on Instagram, 88 percent of the voters considered that the Syrian regime has a material interest in establishing the portal, while 12 percent of voters considered it an attempt to limit immigration.
Nour hinted that the restrictions on the electronic portal were expressing the regime’s concerns of a large-scale immigration movement that followed a decision by Egypt and the UAE allowing Syrians to enter.
“The Syrians’ queues in front of Passport Departments made the officials afraid of a large and uncontrollable migration wave,” Nour added.
On the other hand, Hassan sees that most of the new regulations imposed by the regime on the pretext of “meeting the citizens’ needs” hide the material interests of the regime to exploit citizens inside and outside its areas of control.
The Syrian passport ranks third among the ten worst passports in the world, according to the Henley Passport Index for the first quarter of 2022, as its holders are allowed to enter only 29 countries without the need to obtain an entry visa.
Obtaining a passport is still anguish inside Syria and in most of the Syrian regime’s embassies around the world, which prompts many Syrians to dispense with the passport if they are able to do so, while many are forced to pay huge amounts of money in exchange for obtaining or renewing the passport.
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