It has become increasingly difficult to get out of the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East where millions have been left with homeless and hopeless futures. In Sweden it can take up to two years for someone who has obtained a residential permit, to bring his or her family for a so-called family reunification. This has led to a massive increase in human trafficking. I met some victims who have entrusted their lives and money into the hands unscrupulous gangs, organized into leagues with branches in Sweden and Germany.
In a church in the northern part of Beirut I’m being told that a young mother has gone from Syria to Lebanon, hoping to continue on. Her husband has paid 5000 euros for a visa to Germany. The person who has received the money claims to be working in the German embassy. But it’s a lie. The money has been paid, but the visa does not exist.
I ask a volunteer at the church if he knows about this scam. He says that everyone – aid workers and government officials – knows that refugees are being fooled.
A young woman from Bagdad, Terez, whispers that she knows others who have been fooled. She asks me to accompany her to a four-storey house in the ghetto nearby. There she tells me how she and her brother had to flee to Lebanon when jihadists started to kidnap Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syrians and other Christians. Their father was one of them.
Her brother Tomas arrives. Terez prepares Arabic coffee, while Tomas tells their story. The siblings’ story is painfully familiar – persecution, harassment, abuse and violent deaths. Non-Muslims are facing increasingly unbearable conditions in countries like Iraq and Syria.
Terez is married to an American of Iraqi origin and is due to move to the US, but she doesn’t want to leave Tomas alone. “We only have each other, I can’t go and leave him behind”, she says.
The coffee is served in the traditional small cups. I swallow almost all the content in one sip. At first, they glance at me strangely, but then then we laugh, all four of us. The atmosphere eases. I am given another cup to feed my caffeine addiction.
Terez brings out a folder, full of their collective desperation. The message is “rejection”, even though they have been promised – and have paid for – “approval”. The imposters are smart. They have falsified business cards to convince refugees in Lebanon and Jordan that they work, for example, at the Swedish and German consulates, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Tomas shows me his mobile phone. In the Middle East, most people use the app WhatsApp, which is used for recording and sending sound messages. Tomas has kept the whole conversation between him and the fraudster, Basil. We listen to the recordings. Tomas calls Basil and asks if he can help him. Basil answers that they have to be careful, that it mustn’t be revealed that he helps people to get visas to Australia, but he will gladly help Tomas, since they have common acquaintances. Basil makes it sound like he is doing Tomas a favour, and that the money will go towards his expenses, and to other people at the embassy, whom he must bribe.
A cruel hoax
The months pass. Tomas pays Basil 5000 euros. Money that he and Terez have borrowed from relatives, friends and old neighbours, Christian Iraqis, who are scattered all over the world. We continue listening. Basil lies and lies. One day he is going to return the money, another day it’s impossible. But then suddenly the siblings’ father, who is hiding in Iraq, is in need of an emergency operation. There isn’t enough money. Tomas calls Basil in a panic, asks him to stop everything and return the money, and if not, the father is going to die. Basil says it’s not possible, but Tomas mustn’t give up hope, because soon he will leave the Middle East and be able to work and send money for his father’s operation.
Then Basil changes his mobile number. He disappears with the money. And the siblings’ situation is now worsened. They can’t go to the police in Lebanon, because they are there illegally. They can’t go back to Bagdad. And the father is very ill. Besides that, they are up over their ears in debt.
Tomas shows me receipts for two Western Union transactions. The money has been sent to two persons in Germany. I google the names, investigates social media. Are they real, or are they fake identities? Yes, they exist, but they make themselves impossible to reach when I try to contact them.
I do get in touch with Paulus Kurt, who works for Internationale Gesellschaft orientalischer Christen. He is working with refugees and is very aware of the fact that these criminal gangs fool them. And he has reported a German local politician to the police, because he has fooled about 40 people in Sweden and Germany, who have residential permits, but have tried to bring over their families, friends and old neighbours. The league targets Christians, Yezidis and other non-Muslim groups.
Paulus Kurt got suspicious when he heard that a politician was helping people to apply for visas, but at a cost. He asked to see the copies. “I could tell at once they were false, no applications had been made, and that nobody would get a visa that way. I called the refugees and have now identified forty-five families who have been scammed in Sweden only”.
That night he sends me links to German news articles and TV reports. The politician has left his post and is undergoing a criminal investigation. Most people have lost their money. “Some have the power and brute force to scare the league, and therefore did get their money back, while others are powerless “, Paulus Kurt says.
I want to get hold of Basil, and I go to a translation agency, where I have been told I might get in touch with him. I ask if they know anyone who can get my relatives to Europe, preferably Sweden. I say I can pay and that I am desperate. They ask for my number, point out that they are not involved in anything criminal, but might know someone who can help me. They want to do this just for goodwill.
I log onto Facebook. Basil has three Facebook pages. Pictures of when he is at embassy offices, and at the local UN office in Beirut. It looks good. It’s understandable that many buy into the bluff, when you see the pictures. I approach some of his contacts, who work with refugees in Sweden and Germany. Everybody knows of him, and that he works with asylum issues in the Middle East, but they don’t know exactly what he is doing.
I seek him via Messenger. After twenty-four hours he responds. He says “hello” and asks what he can do for me. I write that I am a journalist and ask if he can answer a couple of questions. He replies that “he knows someone at Skate Varkat in Malmo”. It might be a threat. He wants me to know that he knows people in Sweden. I persist, and ask kindly what he works with. He doesn’t answer any more.
In Sweden I get in touch with Sharbel, through Paulus Kurt. He’s from Syria and was smuggled to Sweden at a cost of 10 000 euros in the summer of 2014. In May 2016 he got his residential visa. He then found out that his wife and two children wouldn’t be able to come for at least another 18 months, because the queues to the Swedish consulate were massive. “The only Swedish embassy they could go to was the one in Jordan, but the borders are closed, and open very erratically. The roads are closed”, says Sharbel, when he explains why he paid for false visas.
He got in touch with the German politician’s network, and calls his relatives and friends. He had found a new way to get into Europe. “My brother-in-law was killed in a suicide bombing and left his wife and daughter behind. We thought we must take them to safety in Europe. My in-laws also wanted to come, as well as my sister, brother and their families”.
Sharbel paid a total of 25000 euros for the family’s visas to Germany. It was a hoax. Three people, Sharbel’s wife and two daughters, managed finally to get to Sweden. The others are still in Syria.
Terez, Tomas, Basil and Sharbel are fictitious names.
*Susan Korah from Canada and Ann Kristin Sandlund from Sweden contributed to this report
**This report was first published in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet