Com­pa­nies make a busi­ness out of visa ser­vices for Syr­i­ans

Odds of suc­cess slim for many; UNHCR cau­tions refugees on po­ten­tial for scams

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

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.

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