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Geopolitics

How Counterfeit Degrees Help Syrians Escape To Europe

Hundreds of Syrian university degrees are reportedly being forged every day, putting the reputation of Syrian academics at serious risk. But counterfeiters say their only concern is helping their countrymen find a "safe way out."

The faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Aleppo University
The faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Aleppo University
Mohamad Khair Alhamwi

DAMASCUS — Illegal emigration is just one of the various unlawful activities many Syrians are undertaking simply to survive. Both inside the war-torn country and across the diaspora, more than four years of civil war, death and displacement have turned dealings that were once unthinkable into the commonplace. Because having a university degree facilitates movement across borders and thus potential migration, many Syrians are trying to obtain forged degrees through bribes and connections.

According to 24-year-old Adnaan, who has been living in Istanbul since fleeing his home in Damascus in February 2013, Syrians can obtain a certified copy of a bachelor's degree for anywhere between $300 and $700.

"When I left Syria, I thought of Turkey as a transit point to continue on to Europe," says Adnaan, who fled his home, leaving friends and family behind, to avoid compulsory military service — an obligation in Syria for all males upon reaching the age of 18. But things didn't go according to plan. For almost two years now, Adnaan has been trying to find a legal way to enter Europe. Because his original major in library studies isn't in high demand, he wasn't accepted by any of the European universities to which he applied. Left with no options, he was forced to look elsewhere.

"A friend told me that he obtained a forged law degree for less than $500, and that he could help me get a degree that would give me a better chance when I apply for graduate schools," Adnaan says.

The offer, according to Adnaan, includes five translated and certified copies of the specific degree requested. Not having an original certificate doesn't pose an issue, he says, because counterfeiters are able to bribe employees in university admissions offices to get them original stamps and seals.

"Procuring these stamps and seals can take a long time," says Adnaan, "and it can cost up to $700 since they have to be made in Syria and then transported to Turkey."

Awaiting word

Adnaan says he finally obtained a forged degree in economics from the University of Aleppo for $300, and submitted his application to two different MBA programs this fall. As of now, he is awaiting an answer.

Syrian universities, ministries and other bureaucracies rely on official stamps, seals and signatures to certify documents and prevent forgery, but apparently these measures are no longer enough.

"Hundreds of degrees are being forged on a daily basis in Syria," says Rami, a 40-year-old lawyer and consultant for a private Damascus university. "Many universities have called on the government to consider new procedures to prevent forgery. We called on the Ministry of Education to launch a digital database and provide each degree with a serial number so that foreign universities can confirm the originality of the degrees they receive. But as of yet, no real changes have been made."

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Damascus University — Photo: Bryn Pinzgauer

While officials at the Ministry of Education are overwhelmed with requests for copies of degrees and don't have the time to address the issue, Syrian universities are deeply concerned about the likely consequences of forged Syrian degrees both inside and outside the country.

"This is not just about violating the law," says Rami. "It is about the history and reputation of Syrian universities, especially the well-known ones like the University of Aleppo and the University of Damascus."

Imad, 27, a graphic designer who works for an advertising agency in Damascus, says he's no stranger to the forgery business. "I've forged close to 20 degrees, but I never fake degrees in the humanities or any major that affects other peoples' lives," he says. "I never touch degrees in medicine, pharmaceuticals or engineering."

Imad says the forgery process isn't all that difficult. "The certifying parties, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, don't usually bother to check whether the certificate itself is real or not," he says. "They stamp without checking the other stamps or signatures, so it's all about creating the document and forging or obtaining the first stamp. After that, all other stamps and seals are real."

Almost everyone for whom he forges a degree uses it not for work purposes but to facilitate movement out of the country, Imad says. The forgeries give people a chance to avoid the dangerous illegal journey to Europe and offer hope for a fresh start.

Asked whether he believes what he does is ethical, Imad says, "Those who requested forged degrees are still in Syria, which means that they have already lost four years of their lives. It is the same number of years one would spend studying to obtain a degree. These people deserve to find a safe way out."

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