On EU border it seems almost everyone wants to be from Syria

Syrians fleeing conflict viewed as having best chance of receiving asylum in west Europe

Four years of war have killed 250,000 of its people, driven four million of them abroad and displaced twice as many inside its borders, but on the Balkan migration route into Europe, it can seem that almost everyone wants to be from Syria.

Among the more than 500,000 migrants who have entered the European Union this year, mostly moving through Turkey, the Balkans and Hungary to Austria and beyond, Syrians are generally regarded as the most privileged.

Not only do they tend to be better educated, dressed and equipped than their travelling companions from as far afield as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Eritrea, but they have by far the best chance of receiving asylum in western Europe.

"At least half the people who say they are Syrian are not," Basher Zitouni, from Aleppo, said yesterday outside Croatia's Opatovac transit camp for migrants.

"All along the journey, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan - even Africans - are telling the police they are from Syria.

“We know immediately from their accent and looks that this is a lie, and after we ask a couple of questions they admit they are not Syrian,” added Zitouni’s friend Sami Zbedeh, also from Aleppo.

"There are many fake Syrian passports around," Zitouni said, as he and Zbedeh showed what they insisted were their own genuine Syrian documents, and talked at length about life in war-shattered Syria, where they were supposed to start medical studies at Aleppo University this autumn.

Even the poorest groups of migrants usually have one member with a smartphone and, using cheap SIM cards and free wifi wherever possible, they monitor closely the news along their route.

‘Open-door policy’

Germany’s declaration of an “open-door” policy for Syrian asylum seekers only widened the difference between Syrians and their fellow migrants, and further boosted a booming trade in fake Syrian passports along the Balkan route.

"There are people who buy fake Syrian passports in Turkey," Fabrice Leggeri, the head of EU border agency Frontex, said this month.

"Those people who pass themselves off as Syrian are Arabic speakers, and many come from North Africa or elsewhere in the Middle East. They tend to have the profile of economic migrants."

With the EU’s asylum system now in danger of collapse, and countries unable to conduct proper background checks on the migrants they are registering - in some cases not even registering them - it is not known how many migrants have arrived without documents falsely claiming to be Syrian.

With central European states and political parties in many EU countries demanding tougher action against “economic migrants” arriving in Europe from some of the world’s poorest states, the news that many asylum seekers are pretending to be Syrian is likely to further inflame debate on the issue.

“We are not here because we are poor or want to take Europe’s money and just sleep,” said Zitouni, who speaks fluent English and some German and Turkish.

“We are here to find safety, and to work. Some of these others, they will give Syrians a bad reputation.”

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