The Men Who Pretend to Be Syrian Refugees

People washing ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos are trying to pass themselves off as Syrian to win a new life in Europe — and overworked officials are struggling to determine who’s telling the truth.


KARA TEPE, Greece — “Oh, you’re from Syria,” said one of the officials holding up a spiral-bound book with color pictures of 100-pound notes. “Can you point to which of these pictures is your home currency?”

One by one, the head of the vetting team led by Frontex, a European Union agency that works between member states to secure EU borders, quizzes men and families claiming to be from Syria who arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I’m a Syrian,” the man repeated to the official cautiously, his shoes and clothing still wet from the journey by sea earlier that day. “From Deir Ezzor.”

The man, who had arrived from Turkey that morning, hesitated and pointed to a yellow bill, a fake note that vaguely resembled Lebanese currency but was clearly not from Syria.

“Are you originally from Iraq, maybe?” the officer asked. After some whispered words with his wife and brother, the man explained that, yes, his family is Iraqi, but they had lived in Syria for many years.

At a registration center that processes more than 1,000 people a day, there is at most a single Arabic speaker present. In the afternoon, after Frontex agents and NGO workers head home at 2 p.m., there are none. The vast majority of the processing is handled by local policemen and civil servants who have been pulled away from their desk jobs at local municipalities and who are ill-equipped to judge whether a new arrival is actually from where they say they are.

Over the summer, between 3,000 and 5,000 people were arriving to Lesbos every day, about half of whom were registered at Kara Tepe. For many of those people — and those still coming to the island now — their declared country of origin could mean the difference between being allowed to stay in Europe and being sent back home. Syrians fleeing war are largely expected to be granted asylum in countries like Germany and Sweden, but individuals from a relatively safe country, such as Morocco or Turkey, who are just seeking better work and education opportunities in Europe, would generally not qualify for the same benefits and would possibly be sent back to their country of origin. Officials familiar with the vetting process at the Kara Tepe registration center estimate about half of all people who arrive initially say that they are Syrian.

“All nationalities receive the same treatment here,” explained the agent to a crowd of men all claiming to be Syrian. The agent declined requests to speak directly to the media or give out his name, “If you’re Libyan, Moroccan, Iraqi, Syrian, everyone receives the same papers. I’m just trying to do my job.”

The man who initially claimed to be from Deir Ezzor but was in fact Iraqi was just one of many who was cycled through this haphazard process. After being questioned by the Frontex official, he was waved through to other agents who helped him fill out a palm-sized slip of paper with his name, the names of his father, mother, and grandfather, and his nationality. At the next kiosk, that slip of paper became a legal document stamped and signed by a Greek civil servant. After being fingerprinted, the man was handed a single sheet of paper — a transit document — which allowed him to travel through Greece to the rest of Europe.

The next man in line approached the official. “I’m just asking for a friend, not for me, but is it OK if you’re Libyan, will you still get the papers?”

In the back of the crowd, one family debated among themselves whether to try to pass for Syrian. When asked where exactly they were from in Syria, one woman paused and smiled: “From Syria, for sure.”

Greece’s system for processing refugees wasn’t fully functional even before the current influx of people, said Migration Policy Institute analyst Susan Fratzke — and has now “basically been overwhelmed.”

Fratzke says as far back as 2008, Greece was being criticized for its sloppy handling of asylum-seekers. Specifically, the country was failing even back then to keep track of who was entering the EU through Greece and process the claims in-country. Everyone who enters the EU through Greece is supposed to declare asylum there, and Greece is supposed to handle the paperwork and vetting process. But Athens knows these people don’t want to stay, so it is not even attempting to handle the claims and is instead just leaving the work for the countries where the new arrivals are heading, like Germany and Sweden.

“Because the rules aren’t being enforced,” Fratzke said, “it’s really had the effect of placing a higher share of responsibility on some of the more desirable destinations like Germany and Sweden.”

At the Kara Tepe registration center, only a fraction of new arrivals receive any sort of vetting at all. Greek officials lack the capacity to carry it out themselves, and Frontex employees are only present at the registration center for a fraction of the day.

At around 4 p.m., after most employees had left, a group of men arrived at the camp asking how to register; they were directed by fellow refugees and migrants to a messy pile of blank slips of paper stacked on an abandoned desk. The men, speaking Iraqi-accented Arabic and slang, said they were from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and lacked documentation because all their belongings had been lost at sea.

The men wrote “Syria” under nationality and proceeded directly to the local police officer, where the information was notarized. Within an hour, they were fingerprinted and had received letters of transit listing them as Syrian nationals.

“We are so thankful to the Greek government to give us this chance at a peaceful life,” said one of the men, who asked to be called Ali.

Aid workers say about half the people at this registration center show up without any kind of documentation. Along the island’s beaches, residents have collected identity documents from the rocky shores — Pakistani and Iraqi passports and Turkish national IDs, all presumably abandoned because people from these countries have slimmer chances of being granted asylum and being allowed to stay in Europe.

“We just have to trust what they write down,” said Dimitris Sarras, a civil servant and architect who now works part time at the registration center to help fill out paperwork. “There was one man from an NGO who spoke Arabic, but he left last week, so there is no way to know, really.”

Greece’s registration process has not always worked this way. The Greek government quietly changed its registration policies earlier this summer, when a sharp increase in arrivals from Turkey to Lesbos left more than 20,000 refugees and migrants stuck on the island, overcrowding the capital of Mytilene, an idyllic tourist town whose typical population numbers roughly 38,000.

German officials have said that 30 percent of the people claiming to be Syrian asylum-seekers in Germany are not in fact from Syria, but officials in Greece with knowledge of the initial registration process on the Aegean island estimate the number is much higher.

“Honestly, it’s really not that hard. You just need to start by asking the guy about himself,” explained one official involved in EU vetting procedures who asked that his name be withheld as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “One guy, I could tell from his teeth he’s a smoker, so I asked, oh, you smoke cigarettes? Yeah? What is that Syrian brand again? Anyone who is actually from Syria will know, but Iraqis would never know.”

The official says the process is rarely confrontational. “They all respect that I’m just trying to do my job, and no one is being turned away.” 

And therein lies a problem: There are no real repercussions if someone is found to be lying about his or her country of origin. If the official doing the vetting isn’t happy with someone’s answer, he or she can detain the refugee in question at the registration center, but this rarely happens at Kara Tepe.

For all those who will qualify for asylum, many others will not, Fratzke says, and Greece is not doing anyone any favors by waving people through. The EU return process, a bureaucratic mess that only manages to send home fewer than half of all those deemed ineligible for asylum, becomes less effective the longer people remain in the system.

“The longer you leave people in the system, the more difficult it is to sort through the cases,” she said, “and the more resources you’re taking for people who might eventually need to be returned.”


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