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Syrian passports: How German money funds war crimes in Syria

March 28, 2024

Syrians in Germany are forced to go back to the government that imprisoned or tortured them to get a new passport. Activists say the money they pay for passports funds a regime sanctioned by the German government.

A Syrian passport being held on a scanner
Syrians say they're ready to integrate and even become German, but some of the bureaucratic hurdles are simply unfair Image: Jens Wolf/dpa/picture alliance

Even in high school, Adam Yasmin was political. When pro-democracy protests began in Syria back in 2011, Yasmin organized after-school demonstrations in his hometown of Jableh — despite the obvious danger posed by security forces loyal to the country's dictator, Bashar Assad.

As Syria's peaceful revolution devolved into a brutal civil war, Yasmin was arrested and tortured. He was 16. "I was in prison for seven months and it was the worst experience of my life," he told DW. "And all because we called for freedom, democracy and the abolition of this dictatorial regime."

When he was released Yasmin fled, eventually ending up in Germany.

Now 27, he lives in Freiburg in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. He's completing a university degree, speaks fluent German and is an aspiring politician. Just over a year ago, he applied for German citizenship and was told he needed one more thing before that could happen: a Syrian passport.

Yasmin had already presented his old Syrian ID card and a birth certificate. "But it wasn't enough and they told me that I need to get one [a passport]. I refused. There's no way I want to give the Syrian government any money after what they did to me. This is a red line for me," he said. "It makes everything that I lived through seem like nothing."

In Germany, and under international law, people officially acknowledged as refugees should never be forced to go back to the embassy of the country they fled. Yasmin is pursuing his legal options. 

Adam Yasmin, a Syrian migrant in Freiburg, stands on bridge
Adam Yasmin has completed his voluntary year of social work in Germany and even joined the young Social Democrats political groupImage: Privat

And he is far from alone with this issue. The situation can be even more difficult for Syrians in Germany who have what is known as "subsidiary protection." A sort of lesser refugee status, subsidiary protection is granted to people who left their country because of danger there, like a civil war, but who are not in direct danger as individuals.

Of the more than 900,000 Syrians living in Germany, a majority — around 640,000 — have some sort of temporary residency status, mostly subsidiary protection. According to current German bureaucracy, all of them need a passport from the Syrian government.

Germany's Interior Ministry told DW that every state has a sovereign right to issue its own passports and charge a fee for this service. And because Syrians who have subsidiary protection are not in direct danger from their government, the Interior Ministry said it's "reasonable" for them to obtain a Syrian passport.

Consular services funding Assad regime

One of the primary arguments against Germany's stringent passport rules for Syrians is the cost — which ultimately benefits the Assad regime. The Syrian passport is one of the most expensive in the world, and a new one from the Syrian embassy in Germany can cost from €265 to €1,000 ($287-$1,080) and is often only valid for two years. By comparison, Germans can get a new passport for around €100, and it's valid for 10 years.

A national campaign, #DefundAssad, launched in late 2022 by German refugee advocacy organizations, suggested that as much as €85 million per year could be going into the Assad regime's coffers because of German rules.

Karam Shaar, an expert on the Syrian political economy at the Washington-based New Lines Institute, has investigated this in detail, taking into account factors like passport expiration, Syrians of passport-bearing age and asylum status. His results indicate the Assad government is probably getting less than the estimates made by the advocacy organizations: between €14 million and €37 million annually from Syrians in Germany.

What is undisputable, Shaar said, is that passports became a good earner for the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war. "In Syria's national budgets, revenue from consular services — an aggregate number, the bulk of which relates to issuing and renewing passports — rose from 0.4% of government revenues in 2010, to 5.4% by 2023," Shaar reported. 

Syrians in Germany didn't always contribute to this cash flow. Up until 2018, officials in several German states, including Berlin, assumed it was "unreasonable" to ask for new Syrian passports. Instead, Syrians were usually issued a gray "foreigner's passport." In other states though, including Bavaria, Syrians did have to get new passports.

By early 2018, Germany's then-Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of the center-right Christian Social Union, decided a more unified approach was necessary and instructed state officials to adopt the Bavarian approach.

Seehofer prided himself on being tough on migration and further tightened federal passport rules in 2019, partly to make it easier to deport migrants. Germany is unable to legally deport people if they don't have official identification.

Marisa Raiser, one of the campaigners behind #DefundAssad, believes Seehofer's instruction to the states to unify passport rules was political. "The argument was that they wanted [all the states] to be unified. But they could have moved in the other direction as well," she pointed out.

In fact, Germany does not require Afghans to go to their embassy for a new passport, Raiser noted, seeing it as "unreasonable," because Afghanistan is run by the Taliban

Other European countries not so tough

DW's research indicates that out of the six EU countries with the largest populations of Syrians, Germany may well be the most restrictive.

Syrians living in France and the Netherlands — whether they are recognized as refugees or have subsidiary protection — are not forced to renew their Syrian passports, representatives of advocacy organizations in those countries told DW.

In Greece, fewer Syrians are allowed to stay, but those who are will usually receive refugee status and never have to renew a Syrian passport, said a spokesperson from the Greek Refugee Council.

In Sweden, Syrians with subsidiary protection can be asked to get a Syrian passport. In practice, Swedish migration officials tend to accept the argument that it would be unreasonable for them to do so and around three-quarters of applicants were approved for an "alien's passport" over the last three years. Austria probably comes closest to Germany's more rigid approach.

What's the solution?

"We've spoken to politicians and everyone understands it's tragic and they don't want anybody here sending money to the Syrian government," said Raiser. "And they say they want to change it."

But the Interior Ministry seems to be opposed, she said, even though a new law would not be needed. "We just need a different interpretation of something that already exists and that was happening previously anyway," she said.

A ministry spokesperson told DW that if a visit to the embassy of the country of origin is deemed not reasonable, German authorities could consider issuing passport replacement documents. But: "The persons concerned must provide concrete evidence of all reasons and special circumstances in their favor."

The spokesperson added that in 2023, the Interior Ministry asked German states to examine the question of reasonableness "particularly carefully" in the case of persons with subsidiary protection status. 

Syrians and campaigners have said that in practice, it is extremely rare that any applicant has been able to prove to officials this is unreasonable. Until today, the situation remains frustrating.

"We are expected to integrate here but the authorities just keep putting rocks in our path," said Yasmin in Freiburg. "They're telling us to pay €1,000 to the government that forced us out of our own country, tortured us and killed our families and then saying 'That's not our problem, it's yours.' It is unacceptable and intolerable and it must not continue." 

Edited by: Ben Knight

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Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.