Gregorio Borgia / AP

Syria relaxes passport rules, letting refugees and draft dodgers apply

Some say change is concession to Syrian opposition; others call it a way for regime to raise funds or track opponents

Syria’s government has introduced new rules to allow Syrian refugees and citizens trapped in neighboring countries due to expired or lost passports to apply for renewals abroad — even if they fled the country illegally or failed to complete mandatory military service.

Al-Watan, a pro-government daily newspaper, first reported over the weekend that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would relax its onerous intelligence review process for passport applicants — who until this week had to apply in person at a security branch in the capital, Damascus — as a concession to the Syrian opposition ahead of rumored talks in Geneva next month aimed at reviving the stalled peace process.

The regime’s intelligence review process had long made it difficult for anyone who escaped the country’s roiling war by sneaking across its porous borders or via rebel-held checkpoints — many out of fear of arrest or military conscription — to apply for travel documents. Refugees who flee Syria in a hurry often make the journey by foot in the middle of the night, and leave their passports behind out of fear they may be apprehended and identified. Over the past four years of Syria’s war, many others have seen their passports expire, effectively thwarting any opportunity to escape the often-bleak circumstances in their countries of refuge.

Starting this week, according to an official document seen by Al-Watan, passports will be issued to Syrians “even if they left in an illegal manner,” so as to “facilitate their return to the country.”

Even though Damascus has not confirmed the policy shift through official channels, Syrians who caught word of the reports promptly queued up outside their country’s consulates in places including Lebanon, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, local media said.

Adel, a Syrian journalist for Lebanon-based ARA News who spoke under a pseudonym, said refugees who applied for new passports at the Syrian consulate in Beirut on Monday were being asked to present identification, a Lebanese entrance card and, for men, a military status card — even if it indicated they had not served in the army. For renewals, Syrians simply presented their passports and were granted extensions “in just a few hours,” Adel said.

“This is a major breakthrough for the people,” he said. “There are nearly a million people trapped here in Lebanon and now there’s a chance they can leave.”

Al-Watan noted that the relaxed policy comes just days after Damascus announced passport fees would double to $400 for a new passport, and $200 for a renewal. For the cash-strapped Syrian government, steeper fees and a wider pool of applicants could be “an important source of foreign exchange,” the paper reported.

Others interpreted the shift as a move to undermine the growing Syrian passport forgery business. Increasingly, Syrian expatriates and journalists say, desperate refugees — who are banned from working in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and face acute discrimination by overstrained host societies — are pursuing any possible means to leave the region. Armed with fake travel documents, refugees are better able to board flights or vessels and claim asylum in places including Europe.

The new rules will apparently not distinguish between regime supporters and opponents, Al-Watan reported, though many anti-regime activists were skeptical about the apparent concession. They cited fears that applying for a new passport would alert Syrian authorities to their whereabouts, thereby jeopardizing their security.

Al Jazeera was not able to reach Syria’s consulates in Lebanon, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates for comment in time for publication.

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