Companies make a business out of visa services for Syrians
Odds of success slim for many; UNHCR cautions refugees on potential for scams
BEIRUT: The Facebook page of the Quick Line travel agency in Jal alDib displays the typical advertisements of the trade – pictures of sparkling seaside resorts and famous tourist sites: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Hagia Sofia.
Interspersed with these are a second set of ads, targeting a different audience. Some display a Syrian flag alongside images of families crying and embracing. One advertises family reunification in Germany. Another reads: “Our Syrian brothers, now you can apply to travel to Canada, Australia, Brazil, Turkey and several other countries.”
The travel agency is one of numerous companies that have made a business out of offering immigration services to Syrian refugees desperate to leave Lebanon and either unwilling or unable to return to Syria.
Various industries have sprung up around Syrians’ desire to travel. Some of them are blatantly illegal: smuggling; email scams that trick people into sending personal information and documents to bogus resettlement programs; and people selling fraudulent, or sometimes real, visas for thousands of dollars.
On the other hand, there are companies like Quick Line that offer assistance with filling out and submitting visa applications. These are often working legally and providing a real service, but the odds of success for many applicants remain slim and the U.N. refugee agency cautions refugees who seek their assistance.
Ghassan al-Aryan, an assistant manager in the Quick Line office, said the company is working honestly, translating and submitting applications for a relatively low fee, and makes no promises or guarantees to the clients.
“There are a lot of companies – some of them are fake, illegal. We are a legal company,” he said. “Sometimes there are customers who say we will give you $3,000 or $4,000 – give us a visa. We do not do this. ... We don’t sell visas, we don’t promise them visas and we have a contract between us and the customer.”
Aryan said many of the firm’s clients have succeeded in traveling.
He referred The Daily Star to one Syrian client who had successfully applied for a visa to Australia.
Tamam Wehbe, 29, said he has been in Lebanon for four years and applied for the visa to Australia last December via Quick Line. He was interviewed at the embassy in April and got word one month ago that he had been approved.
“Australia will be more comfortable than here, of course,” Wehbe said. “Of course I’m happy.”
But Wehbe had a stronger case than many other potential clients – his fiancee is Syrian-Australian, so he was able to apply for a marriage visa, not as a refugee.
Khalaf, a Syrian who has been in Lebanon since 2012 and asked that his family name not be used, told The Daily Star that he had been thinking of paying a smuggler to take him to Europe, but hesitated over the danger of drowning at sea. He heard about Quick Line from friends who had signed up with them – although none, so far, have succeeded in traveling – and so he went to the company’s office a few weeks ago.
“They took from me $300 and translated papers and I don’t know what else,” he said. “They told me, ‘We’ll register you and send your application to the Australian Embassy’ because they told me right now Australia is taking refugees.”
Khalaf said he had borrowed money to engage the company’s services in the hopes of traveling with his wife. He’s still unsure if it was a good investment, but said he didn’t see many other options.
“If the application doesn’t work, I’ll try to apply to another country or I’ll go with a smuggler,” he said.
“The situation is really bad here. It’s hard to pay the rent, living has become very difficult and I can’t go back to Syria.”
A representative of the Australian Embassy in Beirut, asked about the prospects of success for asylum applications received through such immigration brokers, referred The Daily Star to the embassy’s website for information on the process.
The website notes that for refugees applying directly for resettlement without a referral from the UNHCR: “The Beirut office has now received several thousands more applications for self-referred refugee visas than there are places available for. Any new applications received are unlikely to be successful.”
On another page, the website says, “The Australian Embassy in Beirut is aware of scams where agents will charge you money to translate your documents and fill in your forms and promise a refugee visa to Australia. All agents have been advised that new applications are unlikely to be successful and not to take advantage of vulnerable clients.”
Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said the agency cautions refugees to be careful about paying for resettlement services because of the potential for con artists, but added that in the case of brokers who fill out immigration forms in exchange for money, “it is often not clear whether the services provided by the broker amount to fraud as the services they advertise for indicate the provision of assistance in completing the immigration application, with no mention being made to resettlement or the UNHCR.”
Salam Abdel-Samad, a Beirutbased attorney whose practice includes assisting people in applying for immigration to Canada, said his firm screens all clients and accepts only those whose cases are deemed likely to succeed, which are then referred to a partner firm in Canada.
The Facebook page for his practice, “One Step to Canada,” is flooded with comments from Syrians desperate to get out of Lebanon.
“I am from Syria in Lebanon. I seek refuge in Canada. I am registered with the United Nations. For God’s sake, help me. I seek asylum for the sake of the children,” one comment reads.
Another commenter on the page writes, “I am from Syria a refugee in Lebanon. I have eight children without education. I would like to travel to Canada.”
And another: “I am Syrian living in Lebanon and my situation is very tiring. I have four children, and living is very difficult. I hope you can look at my situation.”
Abdel-Samad said about half the clients who approach him are Syrian. But his firm does not handle asylum cases, as Canada’s asylum procedures do not allow it. And AbdelSamad said few of the Syrians who approach the firm make it through the screening process to take them on as immigration cases. Among the criteria: They must have a college degree and speak English.
“We should not play with people, haram, because usually they are families, working people,” he said.
“If they pay for an adviser to help them, they pay all of what they have, so we have to respect this.”
Refugees wave through a bus window as they prepare to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing of Masnaa.