By Mahmoud Abdurrahman and Maria Zayed
Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 7, 2015 (Elwatan) – At first, Fadi, 28, a Syrian refugee fleeing the war in his country, did not take the security officer at Cairo airport seriously when he told him he would not be allowed to enter Egypt.
Seconds later, Fadi realized the security officer was not joking with him after he arrived from Turkey on July 21, 2014. Questions began rushing through his mind:“Why? What will happen to me and where will I go to from here”.
He asked the same officer about the reason only to be told that his residency permit in Egypt is counterfeited and it’s “serial number is not registered in the data base of the airport’s security system”.
Fadi had no option but return to Turkey, where authorities do not impose any restrictions on the entrance of Syrian refugees.
Fadi arrived in Egypt after the Syrian protests began in March 2011. By that time, there were no restrictions on the entrance of Syrians and they did not need a touristic residency (visa) to stay in Egypt.
By on July 8th 2013, days after the dismissal of president Mohammed Morsi, realities changed, and the new regime decided to control the residencies of Syrians in Egypt for security reasons. They imposed new regulations stipulating that no Syrian without an official residency (resulting from marriage, studies or investment) can stay. And if he/she wants to enter on a touristic visa, he/she needs pre-security clearance from the Interior Ministry.
These regulations opened the door for the mushrooming of Egyptian profiteers and Syrian brokers operating to help Syrians escape the official red tape by extending their touristic residencies within days instead of waiting for a month at least.
But most of these residencies turned out to be forged; either stamped by stolen stamps from police departments or by official police seals imitated in special workshops.
The Syrian clients of these brokers are many as the UNHCR estimates there are 133,000 Syrian refugees registered with them, out of 300,000 living in Egypt.
The most faked residencies are those stamped directly on passports in a bid to facilitate the travel of Syrians inside Egypt where security check-points have weak control measures and lack official detectors that are used at the airports.
These counterfeited residencies have no official registration numbers in the Interior Ministry records.
Renewing one residency through a brokers costs about 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($650) compared to 180 Egyptian pounds paid at the Interior Ministry.
Gangs specializing in counterfeited residencies are ry active in areas populated by Syrian refugees such as “Al-Rehab”, “6th of October” and “10th of Ramadan”.
Fadi, was working for a NGO offering humanitarian aid to Syria refugees in Cairo. He had to travel to Damascus from Cairo on April 27, 2014 to obtain some official papers for his family. To be able to return to Cairo, he had to secure an official residency. Pressed with time, he could not wait for the one-month processing time.
“They told me about someone called Mohammad who sits in a well-known café in the 6th of October area and can help with the issuance of residencies for Syrians in a quick manner”, said Fadi.
“I went to him and he asked for my passport. He assured me that my residency will be ready in two days and he asked for 2500 Egyptian pounds ($350) in fees just to pay for a languages Institute in Alexandria to register me there fictitiously”.
He asked for a net of fee of 3000 Egyptian pounds ($400) as fees for paperwork, stamps and for traveling to Alexandria.
On April 30, 2014 Fadi got back his passport stamped with a student residency expiring Sept. 1, 2014. He says says he didn’t know it was counterfeited.14.”
Osama, 24, spent six months in Cairo after arriving there in December 2011. He wanted to travel to Germany to look for a job at the encouragement of his friends and began taking German language courses. Before traveling, he paid a broker $500 for a student residency that was issued on Oct. 27, 2014 by the Nuzha Police Department in the New Cairo area.
He travelled to Germany and joined a local immigration office processing immigration and asylum requests by Syrian refugees.
Osama remembered that the broker delivered the visa after four hours, compared to others who had to wait for days outside the police department in New Cairo to have their papers processed and issued.
”The broker didn’t have any conditions for me to get a student residency, he made residencies for all Syrians from all ages and without any asking for previous educational documents qualifying them to be accepted into the alleged university. You just give him the passport and the money and your residency will be ready in the time agreed upon.”
But when Osama decided to return to Cairo along with a team of German immigration and asylum officers to help Syrian families in Egypt relocate to Germany, he did not know that he would be turned back because his residency was forged.
Osama spent 24 hours at the detention and deportation center inside Cairo International Airport along with 47 other Syrians, all facing the same problem. Then he returned to Turkey.
Fadi and Osama are among thousands of Syrians in Egypt who did not know that taking the short cut and paying extra money would get them forged residency permits that would be detected by officers manning the airport’s s immigration counter.
The Interior Ministry refused to provide both investigative reporters with any information on the number of Syrians in Egypt caught with forged residencies since the new regulations took effect.
But Kassem Al-Khateeb , member of Syrian national coalition opposing the Syrian regime, estimates there are 20,000 Syrians in Egypt who do not qualify to obtain official residencies as per the marriage, education and investment qualifications set by the Interior Ministry in 2013.
The new regulations also stipulate that no Syrian is allowed to enter Egypt without obtaining a six-month visa (non-renewable) from the Egyptian embassy in the country where he/she now lives. This means that applicants sometimes have to wait for at least two months before the embassy gets the clearance from the Interior Ministry in Egypt.
After the touristic residency is over, the stay of any Syrian in Egypt is considered illegal. He/she can exit and re-enter Egypt only if he/she have obtained a special one-year residency as per the 2013 conditions.
The special residence for marriage and investment is made up of a watermarked plastic sticker that is placed on a passport page, in return for 120 Egyptian pound ($16). It takes up to three weeks to be issued. The student residency visa is stamped directly on the passport and hence it can easily be faked.
The reporters decided to experience the process of obtaining a counterfeited residency. They called the number of a Syrian broker who lives in the 6th of October area.
We told him we were given his name by a Syrian party whom he knew. His asked us to contact him on his whatsApp so “I can send us someone’s phone number who’ll take care of the visa but let someone Syrian talk to him for he does not talk to Egyptians”.
Minutes later he sent the phone numbers for two brokers; one Syrian and the other, Egyptian. We contacted the Egyptian broker and gave him the name of the Syrian who suggested that we got in touch with him. He said: “If you want the student visa printed on a plastic sticker that is counterfeited and glued onto the passport, it will cost 4000 Egyptian pounds ( $510) and I will send it to you my way. “But if you want it stamped on the passport itself you will have to wait for a couple of days till I meet the “pasha” and have him stamp it”.
The Egyptian broker refused to provide any information about the “pasha” he was referring to. We told him that our passport does not have an entry visa. He agreed to help us without listening to the reasons: “It is none of my business, I owe you a visa printed or stamped and you give me the money we agreed upon without a penny less, and then you are free and you do not call me unless there is business”.
Then he sent us on WhatsApp two prototypes: For the printed or stamped visa for us to check and select the type we wanted issued.
Both reporters began searching for a Syrian with a passport who could be used to prove how the visas are counterfeited. The search ended with obtaining the passport of a Syrian woman who died two years ago. Her name in the passport read: Samiha Abdeen Abdullah, issuance number 0029-05-6745600 , date of birth 1/1/1926, place of birth/ Damascus, passport number N001401065, issued on 10/11/2005 by Damascus Passport Division.
Again they called the Egyptian broker, who set a date the next day at Cairo International Airport to receive the passport and 2,000 Egyptian pounds.
We tried to change the meeting place into somewhere closer, but he refused saying that he works as a police officer at the airport and cannot leave while on duty. He finished the conversation saying: “I do not take passports from anyone unless the meeting is at the airport”.
After various phone calls between us and the broker, we met at the departures area, Terminal 3 – the old international airport. He approached us dressed in civilian clothes. He refused to go into details, took the Syrian passport and said he would call us at night. Then he rushed toward the departures lounge from inside the airport. We followed him but he disappeared after going through one of the gates designated for airport staff.
Three days later, the man called us from a private number and said: “everything is all right, get the rest of the money ready and I’ll send someone with the passport, but it’ll cost 500 Egyptian pounds more because this visa has a number (officially registered), and the ‘pasha’ made it himself”.
We asked him what he meant by saying the visa has number at the immigration department. He said that it has been attached to the authentic residency number of another Syrian person who already had an official residency in Egypt.
We asked about the importance of that and he assured us that if it were detected as counterfeit the airport security officer can get confused as to who the owner of the official authentic residency is and hence he will be allowed in.
At the given time, a Syrian man arrived in a taxi cab, gave us the passport , took the rest of the money and left.
We opened the passport, and the header on one of its pages read: “Temporary Residency not for Tourism”. It was issued by New Egypt immigration division under record 219/38, page 128. The dead lady’s residency ends by 31/21/2015.
The mission was completed at a total cost of 4,500 Egyptian pounds (around $550).
Both reporters went to the immigration department at Al-Tahreer complex in the heart of downtown Cairo, and home to most government departments, to test the validity of the residency. They showed it to the immigration employee who said that her department was “not qualified” to look into that and asked them to go to the nearby investigation office.
There, a higher-ranking security officer referred us to the criminal investigations department saying he also lacked the jurisdiction to process their request.
They went to the criminal investigations department and told the executive a police chancellor that they had a Syrian residency and wanted to check its validity. His reply was condemning: “So those Syrians got to you too? Have it checked out in the department from where it was issued, or bring the concerned person and their passport for us to check”.
Rassim Al-Attasi, a leading figure in charge of the Syrian community in Egypt, recalled that the Syrian refugees in Egypt have been facing two problems since they set foot in Egypt: “getting the visa and going through police scrutiny of these visas. This has affected families by scattering them all over the world”.
The new regulations initiated of 2013 contributed to Syrian refugees’ greater suffering and uncertainty.
At the start, Syrians paid a small amount of money to secure their place in the lengthy immigration line. Later the process evolved when Egyptian brokers began to offer assistance to whoever wanted a residency stamp on his/her passport in return for thousands of Egyptian pounds. But he said “the majority of residency carriers do not know it is counterfeited”.
Alaa Shalabi, Secretary General of the Arab Human Rights Organization, said there was need for closer coordination between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Egyptian authorities, to find solutions for Syrians who are detained and deported at airports for their counterfeited residencies. He said he had documented information proving that Egyptian and Syrian brokers were involved in selling counterfeited residencies to desperate Syrians.
Egyptian authorities could reactivate the family “reunion” clause. To get that, Syrians have to register at UNHCR in Cairo to obtain refugee status.
Marwa Hashem, assistant to the information officer at UNHCR, said the process is easy. Once a Syrian arrives in Egypt and if he decides to register with the UNHCR, he will get an appointment to submit his/her papers: Birth certificate, passport, family book, school or university certificates and any available documents. Then he/she gets a “yellow card” giving him/her refugee status. This status allows him/her to go to the immigration department at Tahreer complex and get a touristic residence valid for six months and renewable for three times. After this time ends, he/she has two choices; either to leave or to obtain an official residency permit.
Asked wy many Syrians resorted to counterfeited residencies if the process explained by Hashem was so easy, she replied: “Go and ask the Syrians”.
Major General Wael Abdulwadood, the Interior Minister’s Assistant for Immigration and Residency Affairs, refused to answer the reporters’ questions when they called him on his private phone in April 2015.
The reporters also handed officials at the ministry’s media department an officially- stamped letter from “El-Watan” newspaper signed by the chief editor on April 1, 2015, requesting assistance with information.
After waiting for two months, the ministry’s reply came in an “unofficial phone call” where a member of the media administration there said that the file of the Syrians in Egypt is a “political” one and it is forbidden for the leadership at the ministry to discuss it”.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net.