Germany is forcing people displaced by the Syrian war to get documents and hand over money at Syrian consulates loyal to Bashar Assad. Refugee advocates say this is inhumane and supports the brutal Assad regime.
Of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians who have come to Germany since 2014, many enjoy only "subsidiary protection" and not full refugee status. Among other things, this means that they are dependent on embassies loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Under German law, people with various levels of political asylum or similar protection in Germany have to actively cooperate in procuring identity documentation, including passports. And more and more Syrians are being granted only subsidiary rather than full refugee status. Whereas 99.7 percent of Syrians coming to Germany in 2015 were classed as full refugees, last year only 38.2 percent were — with 61 percent enjoying only subsidiary protection.
The situation, say activists, is unacceptable.
"It's a scandal," Jens-Martin Rode of the Association of German-Syrian Assistance Groups, told DW. "We have around 700,000 people in Germany, the vast majority of whom have fled the Syrian regime. Requiring them to get passports from the Syrian Embassy is intolerable for a number of reasons."
Perhaps the most serious of those reasons is fear of the Assad government taking out reprisals on displaced persons' relatives back in Syria. The Syrian Embassy in Berlin, Rode says, works closely with the Syrian secret police.
"Visiting an embassy is dangerous for all Syrians who have family in Syria and whose place of residence is unknown to the Syrian secret police," writes Syrian Aref Hamza in the online magazine Fann. "If their residence address is discovered, they risk all their family members in Syria being arrested, blackmailed or killed."
That's not the only objection to the passport requirement, and activists and refugees aren't the only ones critical of the rules.
Cash for Assad?
The city of Berlin had waived the passport requirement for all Syrians, regardless of status, but was forced to change its policies on orders from the German Interior Ministry last May. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wanted policy to be consistent in all of Germany's 16 federal states.
Passport fees represent a not inconsiderable source of income for the Syrian government. In an interview with a German newspaper group, Green refugee affairs spokeswoman Luise Amtsberg said the practice amounted to the "financing of a terror regime."
"Since the beginning of the of year, the fees charged for issuing a Syrian passport are €255 ($289), regardless of whether the document is issued for two or six years," Amtsberg explained to DW. "In comparison to the passport fees in European countries, that's a lot of money."
Rode says that the Syrian Embassy charges as much €800 for a passport and that under-the-table bribes are often demanded as well.
"When you consider that 700,000 Syrians are in Germany, and 400,000 with subsidiary protection are supposed to pay €255 every two years, you can calculate what sums of money we're talking about," Rode says. "It adds up to tens of millions of euros."
Rode adds that many refugees' only source of income is state assistance.
"German taxpayers' money is being taken directly to Assad's embassies," Rode said.
Emotional terror — not just for Syrians
The regulation also causes psychological hardship. Nouri A., who's lived and studied in Germany for three years, says the mere idea of the Syrian Embassy is harrowing.
"I'm afraid to go to the Syrian consulate, first of all because I'm a Kurd and second because I took part as an activist in the demonstration and strikes directly after the outbreak of the revolution," A. told DW. "I've been arrested a number of times and persecuted by the regime."
And while Syrians represent the largest group of displaced people in Germany, they're not the only ones affected by the passport regulation.
Eritreans, for example, also object to having to visit consulates run by a government from which they fled.
"I will never in my life enter the embassy," Eritrean Ibrahim A. told taz newspaper. "In return for documents, they demand 2 percent of your gross income since you fled. I didn't leave Eritrea to give my money to the dictatorship."
The German Interior Ministry didn't immediately respond to a request for a statement about the controversial policy.