Syria’s refugee crisis has turned proof of Syrian identity into a marketable commodity—and the Assad regime is cashing in.
By all accounts, the black market for Syrian travel documents is thriving. A counterfeit or “repurposed” Syrian passport sells for up to $2,000, and sellers do a brisk business among Syrians lacking papers, migrants of other nationalities, and even some aspiring jihadists seeking to assimilate as refugees.
As the black market price goes up, the Syrian government has begun to understand it is sitting on a gold mine, and it has begun issuing genuine passports as a key source of foreign exchange. Syria’s passports are now the most expensive in the world—the price rose eight-fold to $400 in 2015—and fees can only be paid in dollars or Euros.
The passport industry in Syria has taken off. Demand has increased fivefold since 2014, and the government is pumping them out. It has dropped bureaucratic and political barriers to obtaining a passport, including background checks and intelligence reviews. New passports are an important source of government income. In 2015 alone, the government reaped over $500 million in revenue from passport fees, about a quarter of the country’s 2013 foreign reserves.
For the first time in memory, Syrians opposed to the regime have a shot at getting passports. To do so, though, they must fill the coffers of the very government they oppose. One can even see this as a win-win for the government: it purges the country of its opponents while replenishing government coffers.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.