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Passport Controls Loosened but Problems Remain

Syrian refugees in Al-abrar refugees camp- Barelias, Bekaa- Lebanon 2014.  Photo credit Lens Young Syrian Refugees

In late April, the Syrian government announced a change to its policy on issuing and renewing passports. Instead of submitting every application to an intelligence review, embassies and consulates will now directly issue passports to Syrian applicants. According to the communiqué given to embassy staff, officials have been told to overlook applicants’ legal status, even if they are in possession of fake documents. The previous policy denied virtually every new passport application and left millions of Syrians without a means of proving identification or travelling once they left Syria. Thus, the announcement is a welcome one, albeit long overdue.

The decision, however, comes with one caveat: the government plans to double the cost of both new passports and renewals to $400 and $200, respectively, and has shortened the period of validity to only two years. The higher fees, along with the elimination of bureaucratic hurdles, is intended to raise revenue for the Syrian government which is currently facing a foreign reserve crisis and is in desperate need of foreign exchange. While the policy change will benefit many Syrians in need of travel documents, the high costs will be prohibitively expensive for many others who have no means to generate income for the passport of a single individual, let alone an entire family.The new policy also has the insidious effect of putting Syrians in a position where they must choose whether to pay fees that will help fund the government’s war or remain stranded without travel documents.

Freedom of movement is a basic human right. While governments are allowed to control and sometimes restrict an individual’s movement, the wholesale rejection of issuing passports to all Syrians who fled due to violence and deprivation has been unconscionable. For over four years, Syrians have been unable to legally travel because every application was denied for “security reasons,” if a reason was provided at all. Interestingly, the new policy has disregarded all security concerns, swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction by allowing anyone to receive a passport, no matter how closely connected they actually are to terrorist activity.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) hopes that those who have fled Syria have options about where to live, travel, and work. For Syrians living in Lebanon where refugees without travel documents are considered illegal immigrants, passports will allow greater freedoms and opportunities, including the option of leaving Lebanon to a country like Turkey, where Syrian refugees are more welcome and have access to greater resources.

Unfortunately, the majority of Syrians who cannot afford the high costs of a passport will continue to face difficulties. Ideally, the Syrian government would issue passports free of charge, or at least at a low cost. However, such measures are unlikely, and the international community will need to intervene instead. The passport issue is essentially rooted in structural problems regarding the treatment of refugees internationally. The international community’s unwillingness to comprehensively address the massive refugee crisis is putting Syrians in a position where they must acquiesce to the exploitative fees. As discussed in last week’s blog post, a comprehensive plan is needed to resettle refugees and assign a legal status to those who have no other papers so that they do not need to rely on the whims of the Syrian government for their basic needs.