Šid, Serbia — Few pause at the border between Serbia and Croatia. An observer might have thought the rush was caused by the rain, unrelenting on Sunday, turning the lush farmlands near Šid into a filthy, shoe-sucking quagmire. But rain was not the only reason to hurry. Europe’s migrants seemed propelled quickly onward by both their past and their future, the chaos they fled and the stability they yearn for.
The rush makes for short interviews. Mucking through the boggy ground, I walked briskly to keep up with some of my interlocutors, scribbling in my notebook as I moved. So I was delighted when a young man in a poncho stopped to talk with me, speaking in fragmented but passable English, his family beside him. The littlest child, dressed in a red coat, gnawed on an inflated animal balloon, and as we spoke, I nervously contemplated choking hazards.
The man introduced himself only as “Karman,” refusing to give his last name but nodding when I showed him the spelling of his first. We photographed them. I asked him where he and his family were from and why they had left. He answered immediately that he’d fled Kobani, Syria, a town on the Turkish border heavily attacked by the Islamic State last year. He told me that his father died in Kobani, along with others.
“It’s not easy living there. My friend was killed. I saw him shot in the head, pop, to the street. I saw it,” he said, adding he was scared of the war. As he spoke, the kid in the red coat bit the balloon harder, and it popped loudly. Everyone flinched. “Kobani is boom” — like the balloon, he said.
It was all a lie.
I posted the photo of “Karman” on my Instagram, along with a brief quote he’d given me. Within hours, a peshmerga friend from Iraq messaged me, telling me that “Karman” was actually Karwan Rahman, also known as Karwan Chewar. He’s a well-known TV reporter from Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, one of the few relatively tranquil places in Iraq. He’d made up the entire story he told me.
I contacted his editors at NRT TV, who confirmed the man in the photo was indeed Karwan, though they did not confirm his current employment status. “We have spoken to Karwan, who denies saying he is from Kobani,” said an editor at NRT. “We have no further statement to give at this time.” Another of Karwan’s NRT colleagues told me Karwan had arrived in Austria since we spoke; he again, according to the NRT colleague, denied he had lied to me.
The editors would not provide Karwan’s phone numbers, so I messaged him through Facebook asking him to explain why he’d told me he was from Kobani. I received no response by deadline.
#share#But as Europe reckons with the biggest migration shift since World War II, experiences like this have become commonplace, in large part because of German policies.
Under the Dublin Regulation, newcomers can apply for asylum only in the first European Union country they entered; those who seek it elsewhere risk deportation. But in late August, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees announced it would suspend this policy and offer special treatment to refugees from Syria. Even if newcomers from Syria had passed through other EU countries before arriving, they would be allowed to stay in Germany while their asylum applications were processed.
Germany also offers some of the most prodigal assistance packages in Europe for asylum seekers, including cash benefits, housing, child-care benefits, language courses, and food stamps. Berlin has already estimated it will spend at least $6.7 billion caring for the 800,000 migrants and refugees estimated to arrive in 2015.
So suddenly, it pays to be Syrian — or at least, to claim to be — at a time when overwhelmed European nations are struggling to properly identify and track the hundreds of thousands of newcomers surging across the borders.
Many of the newcomers are flagrantly engaging in ‘asylum tourism,’ because ‘they want to go to the wealthiest parts of the European Union.’
“People were prepared to abuse the system,” says Zoltán Kovács, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government, which has taken a more hard-line approach than Germany on the crisis. Many of the newcomers are flagrantly engaging in “asylum-shopping” or “asylum tourism,” he explains, because “they want to go to the wealthiest parts of the European Union.”
Among those who have registered in Hungary, at least a third claim to be from Syria, Kovács says. And last week, Foreign Policy reported that officials at a registration center in Kara Tepe, Greece, estimate that of the 3,000 to 5,000 people who arrived daily over the summer, half said they were Syrian. Some were caught lying outright, for example, after failing to identify Syrian currency, despite claiming Syria as their home country.
“Legal [immigration] is not a choice for many, because they come from safe countries,” Kovács says. “They don’t have papers, or they don’t want to have papers.”
Confirming the nationalities of those crossing the border has also proven difficult for journalists. Some making the journey were able to show me their full ID cards from their country of origin. Others have given me their names, allowing me to track them online and reasonably confirm their past. But others simply have no way of proving they are who they say they are.
Some without identification really are Syrian. They forgot or couldn’t gather their papers in the blur of an emergency departure, or they lost them along the way. Babies born en route, of course, lack paperwork from their parents’ home countries. These genuine refugees face even greater obstacles now that there’s an incentive to lie about national origin.
And this also opens up other disconcerting possibilities. At best, fraudulent “Syrians” are simply seeking the best possible financial set-up in their new European home. But Europe was already coping with financial strain, and the waves of asylum-seekers have only deepened that problem.
Even worse, some crossing European borders might be faking their identities with the intention of committing acts of violence or terrorism.
“Young men with backpacks are coming in unregistered, unchecked, and we don’t know what’s in that backpack,” says Eugene Megyesy, a senior adviser to Hungary’s prime minister.
#related#Hungarian police have found phones discarded at the borderline, including some with disturbing or violent photos on them, says András Lánczi, the chairman of the Budapest-based Szazadveg Foundation, which has close ties to the Orbán government. It’s unclear whether the phones’ owners took these pictures because they were witnesses to or perpetrators of violence.
With all of this in mind, it seems I lucked out with Karwan. He wasn’t dangerous. And from what I can see, his credibility has rightly taken a hit with his home audience: “Shame on him,” one Instagram commenter wrote on my posting. Another was less subtle, saying he’s “simply a f*cking liar whom I wanna punch in the face whenever I get the chance.”
My hope is that Karwan gets only what he legally — and professionally — merits in Europe. I also pray that the truly deserving Syrian war refugees, who have seen their credibility diminished by liars such as Karwan, find the peace and stability they seek. Still, in an era of fake Syrians, it’s impossible not to appreciate Europeans’ growing unease.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Tony Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute.