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 â€" 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 â€" 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."

Damascus University â€" 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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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