Syria's Latest Economic Trick: Loot Its Refugees
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Syria's economically bankrupt regime is now trying to squeeze refugees for cash to stay afloat.
By Stephen Starr
For the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, winning the country’s brutal civil war has come at a huge financial cost. Penniless today, it owes Iran and Russia billions of dollars for their help in violently defeating an uprising that sought to overthrow it. Since the war wound down in 2019, a strict sanctions regime has seen Damascus cut off from the international financial world.
All the while the country is home to 6.2 million internally displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on top of another 5.6 million people registered as refugees abroad — with millions more undocumented. So, to stop the economic hemorrhaging, Damascus is going after some of the people affected worst by the conflict: Syrian refugees.
In June 2019, Assad publicly implored Syrians to return home. But he failed to mention that doing so would soon cost them a small fortune. In July 2020, the government announced that every Syrian reentering the country would have to exchange $100 for Syrian pounds. Researchers relay stories of families attempting to go home from Lebanon and being forced to split up as a result of being unable to pay to bring the whole family together.
There is the obvious aim of making return costly for refugees.
Jihad Yazigi, editor, Syria Report
Earlier this year, the regime raised the ante further, introducing a law allowing it to seize property and other assets of men who fail to pay the (up to) $8,000 fee to avoid conscription to the military before reaching the age of 43, without giving targeted families any notice.
“There are strict laws that no citizen can evade. The state can seize his property and money, the money of his parents, wife, relatives and anyone related to him,” Elias al-Bitar, a brigadier general in the Syrian armed forces, warned in a video published on the Syrian Ministry of Information’s Facebook page on Feb. 6.
Failing to pay the fee would result in imprisonment and a fine that compounds annually. But paying off the regime is beyond the ability of most Syrian refugees and migrants, who can’t join the military because they’re not in Syria. Research in 2019 by the Turkish Red Crescent and the World Food Programme found that Syrian migrant workers in Turkey earn only $178 per month. Registered Syrian refugees in Germany are allocated about $450 per month, excluding rent and health insurance.
“On the one hand, there is the obvious aim of making return costly for refugees,” says Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report, an economics and business portal. “It also reflects the shortage of foreign currencies held by the government and the need to collect them by any possible means.”
For years, pro-government militias known as shabiha have been allowed to loot and murder in areas formerly controlled by the opposition, with many taking land and properties for themselves. But this move is the first time the government has made such a direct — some say desperate — drive for cash. Worryingly, even Syrians who’ve managed to obtain citizenship in another country aren’t exempt from the conscription tax.
The move could be particularly damaging for Syrians in Europe, with Denmark in March stripping 94 refugees of their residence permits, setting them up for deportation. Copenhagen has concluded that Damascus and the province surrounding the Syrian capital are safe enough to return to. But rights groups contest this.
“It’s a clear concern because [if their homes and properties are sold off], these people have nowhere to return to,” says Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch. “Where do they go back to?”
The threat of asset seizures isn’t the only way the regime is targeting its citizens. Syrians who want to renew a passport from Turkey or Jordan need to shell out between $600 and $900 — or $1,000 if they want the process expedited. If you’re applying from Europe, it’ll cost you between $400 and $500. That’s up from $100 at the start of the war.
Husam, an Iraqi national living in Istanbul, recounts the difficulties his wife (also in Turkey) recently faced trying to get her passport renewed. In addition to a $600 fee plus $100 for an appointment, she would have needed to travel for an hour to the consulate, where she would queue up at 7 a.m. for an hours-long wait before being able to see an official. Instead, she asked an uncle in Damascus to apply on her behalf, and then have the document shipped to them from the Syrian capital. “But it still costs $400, plus cargo charges,” says Husam.
Whether the regime succeeds in squeezing any money out of its war-weary citizens thousands of miles from home remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: Whether inside or outside Syria, the regime is digging in its claws.
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr