Profitable business at Syrians’ expense: Visa brokers in Lebanon, Turkey
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
“We had no other solution. The delays in the family reunification procedures for my father forced him to sell our house before leaving Syria, then he bought a visa and came,” Ali told Enab Baladi about his father’s trip from Lebanon to Turkey to end up in Germany to reunite with the family, after unexpected delay and other difficulties related to reunification procedures in Germany.
The first years of the Syrian revolution were met with open doors that allowed refugees to reach Turkey, where about 3.7 million of them remained, while others took it as a stop toward Europe. However, later events created a drastic change and changed the mechanism of dealing with the movements of huge numbers of Syrians who wanted to leave their country to seek life and its necessities elsewhere.
Since the beginning of 2016, the Turkish government has imposed on Syrians a visa to enter the country, by land, sea, and air, in order to reduce the flow of refugees to it, without political or military indications that at the time would suggest that a solution would be reached to end the causes of this flow.
Before the revolution and until 2016, Syrians were able to enter Turkey through their identity cards.
Ali, his mother, and his three siblings resorted to brokers to obtain a visa to Turkey. The brokers worked independently and in secret, not in offices, for transactional procedures performed for social and legal cover, and eventually, a visa of 3,700 euros was secured for Ali’s father.
The entry visa for Turkish Cyprus, which was a formal visa to reach Turkey, allowed Ali’s father to leave Lebanon towards Istanbul, and when the plane landed, one of the broker’s collaborators gave him a passport to enter Istanbul, then took it back from him after leaving the airport.
This way, Ali’s father managed to enter Turkey without having to travel to Cyprus, whose visa was secured through a sponsor and the embassy.
During his conversation with Enab Baladi, Ali reserved his full name, noting that topics of this kind are sensitive, but at the same time, he made it clear that the choice the family made was not out of sheer desire, given the cycle of communication with brokers, and the fears of being defrauded, as the family would not have been able to secure the amount paid to enter Turkey had the father not sold the family’s home in Syria before leaving it.
Regular process or relying on brokers?
The means of obtaining an entry visa fall into two parts, the first of which is through intermediaries, brokers, or offices who prepare a file for the person to submit to the embassy in the hope that it will grant him/her an entry visa.
This method requires a set of papers, part of which is prepared by the person who wishes to travel (invitee), and they are obtained from Syria. The second part of the papers is submitted by the inviter to the embassy, given that the visa is obtained through an invitation from a person, company, or institution in the other country, and here comes the role of the mediator (broker), who prepares these papers and completes the file for an amount ranging between 75 and 100 US dollars.
Enab Baladi contacted one of the mediators, who preferred to withhold his full name and be dubbed as “Abu Abdo” for social reasons.
The mediator explained that obtaining a visa is subject to an invitation submitted by a first-degree relative or a person who plays the role of the sponsor. In this case, a set of papers is prepared after meeting a set of conditions.
The conditions require the inviter to have a bank account, a temporary protection card (Kimlik), or a car driving certificate in preparation to obtain health insurance. The inviter should also submit a residential lease contract, a clean criminal record, and a pledge sheet to cover the expenses of the invitee in Turkey, which can be obtained from the governor’s office.
Some of the required papers can be replaced by others, as a valid passport can replace the Kimlik, while it is allowed to use the work permit as a substitute for the passport and the kimlik if the invitee is under 18 years old.
Abu Abdo indicated that many of these papers can be obtained through the Turkish e-government portal (e-Devlet) via mobile phones, but people’s ignorance or lack of knowledge of these details pushes them towards intermediaries, pointing at the same time to people’s fears of making any mistake when preparing their visa application papers.
Abu Abdo did not forget to mention that the approval of the visa application is not guaranteed but is highly possible, especially if the inviter is a holder of Turkish citizenship or has an active bank account.
The concerns during the preparation process of official documents are related to fears generated by the relationship with the employees of government institutions in general, a fear that accompanies Syrians in Syria and outside as well, given that correcting legal errors related to papers may take time and effort and subject the person to security questioning or legal hardships at courts just to make a simple modification in a paper or in an official proceeding.
To investigate secured ways to obtain a visa to enter Turkish territory, one of Enab Baladi’s journalists contacted an office that claimed to provide services, including extracting all certified official papers from Syria and work permits in Turkey. The office also offered to prepare the invitation file and submit it to the Turkish embassy in Beirut.
Other services by the said office include booking appointments at the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul, translating identification papers, obtaining residency permits, and issuing flight reservations.
The office confirmed the possibility of obtaining a guaranteed visa even if the client did not want to prepare and submit a file and wait for possible approval, but the cost of this guarantee was 3000 US dollars to be paid after obtaining the visa.
In this case, all that the inviter in Turkey must provide is an email address, a mobile phone number, a copy of the passport, and of course, an amount of 3000 US dollars.
What does the law say?
In the presence of brokers in Turkey, who secure visas to European countries, in return for huge sums and in the same way, adopted by brokers working to secure visas from Lebanon to Turkey, lawyer Ghazwan Koronfol, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, confirmed in an interview with Enab Baladi that many of these offices, regardless of the destination of their visas, are a means of defrauding people and robbing them of their money.
Speaking about the offices that work to secure visas between Lebanon and Turkey and other countries within the region, the lawyer confirms that the high amounts they receive are linked to the multiplicity of beneficiaries, pointing out that these offices do not hold a legal license for this type of work, but they may operate under a tourist office license used for these purposes.
There are offices charged with receiving the required papers with passports and visa fees as an intermediary between the client and the consulate, Koronfol said, adding that all other offices are probably not licensed for this work and can be held accountable because their work is illegal.
The lawyer believes that the issue of these offices can only be controlled and limited by people ignoring them and not dealing with them, and by requesting visas through legal means, directly from consulates, or through offices approved by governments, such as “I DATA,” which is an officially approved office by Turkey.
Regarding the legal responsibility that could fall on the office that conducted the brokering on the entry visa and the person who obtained it, Koronfol asserts that the person who obtained the visa is not legally responsible.
He added that the office that secured the visa could be held accountable for the crime of fraud or illicit enrichment if the amount it received in exchange for obtaining the visa was exaggerated and above the actual cost of the prescribed fees, in addition to a small amount as fees for office services, in return for official receipts handed over to the client, which is not happening in transactions done by unlicensed offices.