Dozens of Syrians gather outside an Immigration and Passport Department branch in Damascus, August 2021 (Web)
DAMASCUS — After all her attempts to hold on and stay in Syria, Salwa Hosni, 39, has decided to leave. She is looking for a job opportunity to provide her the financial stability she has not achieved in eight years working at a government bank in Damascus.
For 11 years, Hosni, who lives with her family in an informal neighborhood of Damascus, tried to cope with the security and economic conditions in Syria. But with unprecedented economic decline, rising costs of basic goods and poor services, she resigned from her job and is waiting for “the employer’s approval to start travel procedures,” she told Syria Direct.
A new wave of migration is sweeping across regime-controlled parts of Syria, as thousands of Syrians take advantage of eased entry procedures to some countries—such as the United Arab Emirates, Iraqi Kurdistan, Libya and Somalia—after they were suspended for years. Some attempt irregular migration to Europe, risking their lives.
Hosni has decided to travel to the UAE, where her sister works for 7,000 dirhams (AED) ($1,900) a month. She is relying on her sister to fully fund her travel, since she cannot pay for a plane ticket or other travel costs on her monthly salary of SYP 150,000 ($38 according to the current exchange rate of SYP 3,985 to the dollar). It “doesn’t cover even a small part of our needs,” she said.
Passport speed bump
The Syrian Ministry of Interior’s Immigration and Passport Department centers are being overcrowded by Syrians wishing to obtain a passport. In response, the Damascus government has taken measures to alleviate the passport crisis, including launching an “electronic line” portal last November through which applicants can book a turn to get a passport in Damascus and Reef Dimashq provinces.
But the portal, under heavy pressure, stops working from time to time. And passport appointments extend into 2024, according to screenshots circulated by users on social media. Brokers are taking advantage of the situation, taking fees for appointments and passports outside the system.
Hosni had to pay “$300 to a broker at the immigration and passport [office] in Damascus to book a turn and issue the passport,” she said.
Amid crowding at the Immigration and Passport Department, the Ministry of Interior opened a new building in the al-Zablatani district of Damascus this month “as part of the Ministry of Interior’s keenness to make it easier for citizens, simplify procedures and obtain the best services in the easiest and fastest way,” Interior Minister Mohammad al-Rahmoun told the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
On May 24, the Ministry of Interior increased expedited passport fees for Syrian residents by three times. The cost is now SYP 300,000 ($76), rather than the previous SYP 100,000 ($25). According to the decision, an expedited passport can be issued without booking a turn through the electronic platform, provided it is delivered to the person concerned on the same day. The cost to issue a non-expedited passport for residents is SYP 50,000 ($12.50), and requires booking a turn through the platform.
According to the listed fees, the average employee in Syria must pay around half of their monthly salary to obtain a non-expedited passport, and three times their salary for an expedited passport. More than 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, with an average estimated salary of approximately SYP 92,000 ($23).
Life is almost impossible
“Shells and war–those were the days. We could eat and drink. Everything was available at affordable prices,” Adam, 30, told Syria Direct. “Today, people are dying a thousand deaths to make a living.” His monthly salary is no longer enough to live on in Damascus, he said, and covers “only ten days,” with half going to rent and main bills.
Syria’s economy is currently the worst it has been since 2011, due to a range of factors including conflict, hyperinflation, the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, neighboring Lebanon’s economic collapse and US and European sanctions on the Assad regime.
Adam works as a computer engineer at a private company in Damascus for $300 a month—a good income compared to the average salary in Syria. But his salary is not enough in a country where the average cost of living for a family of five is SYP 2.8 million ($714), according to estimates from the Kassioun economic index published by the Syrian People’s Will Party. As a result, he is considering leaving his job to “look for a job opportunity in another country.”
Hoping to “save the passport fees and not enter the labyrinth of procedures,” Adam plans to leave the country using his valid passport, which expires in October 2023.
He has his eyes set on Dubai, expecting to find a job in his field there that will generate a good income. He is waiting for a three-month tourist visa, with his friend’s help, that would authorize him to enter the UAE and look for a job on the ground there.
Adam is following in the footsteps of Aziz Muhammad, 29, who arrived in the UAE at a friend’s expense one month ago. “He sent me $600 for travel costs from Damascus to the UAE,” Muhammad told Syria Direct.
Unlike many young Syrians who leave the country to escape conscription, Muhammad, who worked as a math teacher at a school in Damascus, left because of “the high cost of living and low income.”
Fortunately, Muhammad was able to find a job as an accountant at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi for 5,000 AED ($1,360) per month. As a teacher in Syria, he made SYP 200,000 ($50) a month. His salary is not high compared to expenses in the UAE, but it is an important step “toward the decent life” he is looking for, he said.
Syrians in regime-controlled areas are looking for a way out of the country at a time when some countries hosting Syrians are promoting the idea of “voluntary return.” Most recently, the Turkish government announced its intent to return one million Syrian refugees to their country. And in December 2019, Denmark designated Damascus and Reef Dimashq provinces as safe for returns.
Meanwhile, the chances for Syrians to reach the European Union have slimmed, as these countries tighten control over their borders and enter into agreements with Libya and Turkey to keep migrants out. In response, Syrians look for other smuggling routes and countries that can take them, regardless of the living conditions and security there.
The UAE and Iraqi Kurdistan are two main destinations for Syrians who currently wish to leave the country, because they can get entry visas. Others look for chances to travel to Turkey, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Libya.
A visa for Iraqi Kurdistan costs $250-300, while a UAE visa costs $205-230. Prices vary from one tourism office to another. The cost of entry for Egypt is $1,200, which includes visa fees, the ticket and fees paid to a tourism office for “security approval.”
As part of the ongoing search for countries that take Syrians, or routes that allow them to reach Europe, different countries pop up on the list of Syrians’ interest from time to time. One roundabout route to reach France is by getting a visa for Brazil, then crossing to France’s overseas territory of French Guiana and claiming asylum. Another option in recent years was to reach Europe through a tourist visa from Belarus.
But even amid the latest wave of migration out of Syria, the Syrian regime continues to hold meetings and conferences in coordination with Russia about the return of refugees, despite documented violations against those who return.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.