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Syrian students’ futures hostage to brokers and state employee bribes

To obtain records from Syrian public universities, students must apply in person or through legal proxies. If this is not possible, or if they are wanted by the security services, they are forced to pay hundreds of dollars in bribes to state employees through brokers.


25 March 2024

HASAKAH — It took a week of negotiating this month for Nour Issa (a pseudonym) to convince a government employee at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities to lower the bribe he charged for issuing her transcript from SYP 6 million ($433) to SYP 5 million ($361). 

Issa, 33, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Aleppo University in 2012. She has a graduation certificate proving that, but she is pursuing graduate studies at a university abroad and needs to provide a transcript, she told Syria Direct

In February, Issa—who lives in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli—went to the Syrian regime-affiliated court in Hasakah city to attempt to grant her father power of attorney to request the transcript on her behalf. A court employee told her “the power of attorney needed security approval,” and because she is “wanted by the regime,” she had to find another way, through brokers or public employees, to get the document. 

Before Issa came to an understanding with a university employee to pay SYP 5 million for her transcript, a broker quoted her $600, nearly twice as much, for the document from the university, which is affiliated with the Damascus government’s Ministry of Higher Education. 

“In this country, everything is solved with money,” Issa said. “I have to pay so the fruits of my studies aren’t lost.” She hopes to receive her transcript within two weeks, as the employee promised, and achieve her dream of continuing her education. 

To obtain official university records—a graduation certificate, transcript or diploma—students must apply in person or through a legal proxy. Neither was an option for Issa, who is wanted by Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate and Political Security Directorate. She learned this by running a search for her name against regime wanted lists. 

Her only option, like others who are wanted by the regime or outside the country and not able to appoint a legal proxy, is to pay millions of Syrian pounds to brokers or government employees. 

The practice of bribing state employees, either directly or through brokers colluding with them, is deeply rooted in Syria’s modern history. It goes by many names: a sweetener, a tip, the price of a cup of coffee. Financial corruption was one of the issues that prompted many Syrians to take part in the March 2011 revolution.

While Syrians pinned their hopes on the uprising improving living conditions and removing corruption from public institutions, after 13 years and more than a decade of war, the rot remains entrenched. The cost of bribes has gone up and spread throughout many government sectors, with payments “openly” demanded in US dollars, students told Syria Direct

From SYP 100 to SYP 1 million

Hussam Abed (a pseudonym), 37, studied for three years at the sociology department of Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. During his fourth year, in 2010, he applied to begin his mandatory military service early, hoping to “gain time” by finishing his studies while serving. 

While Abed was enlisted, the Syrian revolution broke out, and the military establishment sided with the regime in repressing demonstrators. In response, Abed—who now lives in Hasakah city, in territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—deserted in 2012, without finishing his studies. 

Abed once dreamed of graduating and working in education, contributing to “the development of the educational process” as a counselor, he told Syria Direct. Today, he works as a plumber instead.

A few months ago, Abed asked around about the possibility of getting his transcript from Aleppo University to complete his studies at another institution. He heard it would cost nearly $1,000, so decided not to pursue it. That amount of money “provides a living for my family for five months,” he said. Besides, “there’s no benefit from a university degree in a country where there is no future.”

Bribes in Syria were once limited to some sectors—traffic police or employees at some state institutions—and ranged from SYP 100 to SYP 500 (between $2 and $10, according to the 2011 exchange rate), he said. Today, “they demand millions for a document.”

Syria Direct contacted one broker in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to inquire about the prices for students to obtain records from Damascus University. He said the cost varies from person to person, and is lower if the individual “is able to appoint a proxy.”

For someone who is wanted by the security services, like Issa, a transcript or graduation certificate from Damascus University costs $300 for each document, the broker said. A diploma costs $500, without translation and certification from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice. 

In Aleppo, a transcript costs $500, in addition to $200 for certification and translation, a broker in the city who works obtaining university documents told Syria Direct. A graduation certificate costs $300 alongside $150 for translation and certification, while a diploma costs $600 plus $200 for translation and certification. 

“It takes a week to issue a graduation certificate, at least two weeks for a transcript, and several months for a diploma,” the broker in Aleppo said. The quoted prices are “not fixed, because they go up and down depending on the student’s status,” he noted, referring to security status. 

Several people are involved in the process of issuing university documents for bribes. A broker negotiates with students, then reaches out to the employee or employees involved in issuing it, one Aleppo University employee told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

The employee did not deny taking bribes in exchange for “helping students get their papers,” as he put it, emphasizing that many employees take their share from the process “in exchange for help.” 

“I am not ashamed, because my salary is not enough for five days out of the month,” the Aleppo University employee said. “What should I do for the rest of the days?” He currently makes SYP 300,000 a month ($21.50 according to the current black market exchange rate of SYP 13,850 to the dollar). With this salary, “the government has forced us to take money in exchange for the documents we issue to students,” he said. 

Soaring poverty levels in Syria, the spread of illegal economic activities and restrictions on the media have helped make bribery an open practice, according to a September 2022 report by human rights organization Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ).

“It seems clear that bribery and corruption in Syria will not be a short-lived phenomenon limited to only some sectors, but a system which will continue to affect all aspects of life in the country until it is addressed,” the report warned. 

While certain documents are most commonly requested, the list of services provided by brokers and some state employees includes more than graduation certificates and transcripts, the Aleppo University employee added. Students can also pay a bribe to receive the grade for a course before official results are issued. “The cost for this service ranges from SYP 5,000 to SYP 10,000 ($0.36 to $0.72),” he said. 

Students also request military service deferment certificates through brokers and employees “in exchange for money,” the employee added, noting the cost of issuing this document is higher than others. 

Prices are set “according to the importance of the document, and the number of employees who will participate in the process,” he said. “If it is a document involving one employee it costs less, but if multiple people work on it, the amount must be distributed among the employees according to the agreement between them.” 

In early March, a number of employees at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts, including the head of the examinations department and an employee in the sociology department, were referred for investigation, the same source said. The arrests were related to “accusations related to corruption and forging documents.”

Exploiting expatriates

As soon as brokers or employees learn that a student requesting documents is abroad, particularly in Europe, their fees double.

Two years ago, Ahmad Ali (a pseudonym), 33, a Syrian refugee living in the Netherlands, set out to obtain a graduation certificate, transcript and diploma with translation and certification from the foreign ministry. When the broker he contacted learned he was in Europe, he charged around $2,500, so Ahmad gave up, he told Syria Direct

Ali, who is from Syria’s far northeastern city of al-Malikiya (Derik), completed his degree at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Law in 2020. He immediately left the country, “fleeing compulsory military service,” before receiving his documents and diploma. 

Speaking from the Netherlands over WhatsApp, Ali expressed his regret at the extent of the spread of corruption in Syria. “Our dreams have turned from building a future for ourselves in Syria to just extracting a document for huge sums of money.” 

Sources Syria Direct spoke to for this report turned to brokers because they were wanted by the security services. But other refugee students are also being charged enormous sums, and even those who apply in person “have to pay a bribe to speed up the process,” as the Aleppo University employee said. 

That was the experience of Kamal Hassan (a pseudonym), 24. Four months ago, he was forced to pay $50 to an employee at the regime-affiliated Euphrates University, in Hasakah city, to obtain proof of graduation, even though he applied in person, is not wanted for military service and did not need a proxy, he told Syria Direct

Hassan graduated from Euphrates University’s Faculty of Economics in 2023, then applied for an accountant job at a local media agency in Qamishli. His new employer required proof of graduation, and because “getting a graduation certificate takes several weeks because of the routine and bureaucracy,” he requested a graduation notice instead. 

“The university employee told me the notice is also extremely difficult,” Hassan recalled. “That’s when I knew he wanted a bribe.” He paid the money, and received the notice within four days. “If I hadn’t paid, they would have delayed it, and I would have lost the job,” he added. 

According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index, an annual analysis of corruption in 180 countries by Transparency International, Syria is tied with South Sudan and Venezuela in second-to-last place, with Somalia ranking last. 

Although the spread of bribery in government institutions and universities in Syria“due to the weakness of the government’s regulatory and legal institutions,” the problem is also related to “the weakness of the social and ethical culture of the employees,” university graduate Yusuf Muhammad (a pseudonym), 28, told Syria Direct

“Without a bribe, things are obstructed. We all say that bribery exists, and everyone knows it,” Muhammad said. “We also say: As long as there’s money, the problem is solved.” 

Issa never intended to leave Syria when she graduated 10 years ago. She hoped to earn a graduate degree and open a language teaching and translation institute in her homeland. “All of the dreams went in the wind,” she said. “My dream became getting my university documents” to find an opportunity to study, far from Syria. 

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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