A Syrian passport found near the body of one of the men who carried out a terrorist attack in Paris on Friday has renewed focus on the thriving trade of forged or stolen Syrian documents amid the drastic increase in refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe.
Over 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe this year, most fleeing conflict and repression in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. However, because some European countries accept the refugee status of Syrians far more easily than that of those coming from other countries, the demand for illicit Syrian documentation among migrants and refugees from other countries has grown dramatically.
"Many non-Syrians, such as Iraqis and Lebanese, try to buy fake Syrian passports for about 2,000 euros in Turkey," Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director of Human Rights Watch, told The WorldPost. "It’s simply easier to make your way through the Balkans and also to obtain asylum in countries like Germany if you can prove you’re Syrian."
Syrians who don't have passports are sometimes forced to buy fakes, Bouckaert said. Other Syrians have had their passports stolen to be sold on the black market.
It is increasingly likely that the Syrian passport discovered outside the Stade de France, where three attackers linked to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, detonated suicide vests last week, is one of these fakes. It is registered to a 25-year-old Syrian man named Ahmad al-Mohammad, but U.S. officials and French justice minister Christine Taubira have disputed its authenticity.
The identification numbers and photo on the passport indicate that it may not be legitimate, a U.S. intelligence official told CBS News.
"If [it being fake is] the case, it’s likely that this person bought this passport on the Turkish black market as hundreds of people do every day," Bouckaert said. "It’s a very easy market."
However, Greece's interior minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, has said fingerprints taken from the remains of one of the bombers match those of a man who registered as a refugee using the name Ahmad al-Mohammad at the Greek island of Leros in early October. He was also documented to have traveled through Serbia, Croatia and Austria.
"The issue of whether the passport is fake or not obviously doesn’t affect the fact that this person did come through the Balkan route," Boucakert said. "But what it does show is just how extensive criminal control of this migration route is."
"Turkish criminal groups probably make more than $100 million a month on this route right now," he added.
Despite the vague provenance and questionable authenticity of the passport, as well as the unknown identity of the attacker, some conservative groups have seized on the discovery to launch a backlash against Syrian refugees and restrict their entrance. Many populist European politicians, as well as some presidential candidates and Republican governors in the U.S., have characterized Syrians seeking asylum as a security threat, and rejected refugee resettlement.
Some experts say that is exactly what the Islamic State wants, as its members aim to discourage Syrians from fleeing their so-called caliphate and have framed the conflict against them as a religious, apocalyptic clash of civilizations.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and an author on Islamist politics, told The WorldPost that the Islamic State's apparent exploitation of the refugee crisis to embed one of its supporters along the migration route has created a backlash that plays into that narrative.
"It’s unfortunately a smart move for ISIS to do something like that, and this is where we have to be very aware of what ISIS is trying to do and how they’re trying to provoke us," Hamid said.
Only by setting up a unified policy to legally process refugees and migrants can the European Union have greater control over security, Bouckaert warns. Otherwise, he said, the industry of fake and stolen passports and smuggling will continue.
"Any attempt to shut Europe’s borders will not necessarily stop the flow of refugees to Europe but will drive them deeper underground into the hands of these criminals and give Europe even less control over who comes and who doesn’t," he said.
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