SANLIURFA, Turkey — Mustafa, a 23-year-old Syrian living near the border in Turkey, makes his living selling fake IDs: a murky trade that helps refugees and jihadis alike pass in and out of his country's civil war.
For $2,000, he can make a forged Syrian passport that can pass as the real deal: "100% guarantee," he claims. Lower-quality versions cost $1,000 less. Syrians who lose their IDs in the confusion of the war often use the documents to enter Turkey as refugees, and sometimes to try to travel onward to Europe. The demand has spawned a cottage industry in the border region, flooding Turkey, home to more 1.5 million Syrian refugees, with fakes.
"There's a huge number of people who are in need," said Mustafa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity from Turkish authorities. He met BuzzFeed News for an interview in Sanliurfa, a southern Turkish city awash in refugees, many of whom have come to him for help.
Syrians might lose their IDs "because they left very suddenly and in the scramble didn't get them or couldn't return home," said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency. Most Syrians, she noted, do have some form of a national ID. Yet the scale of the refugee crisis keeps the need for fake ones high — and it grows as real IDs expire with no chance of renewal by the Assad regime, which takes a hostile view toward those who flee. Syrians in Turkey rely on fakes like Mustafa's to help them cross the border, register with Turkish authorities, and seek help from NGOs. Good fakes can also be used to travel to Europe or the Middle East, according to Mustafa and human traffickers based in Turkey. "These are humanitarian cases," Mustafa said.
The fakes can also be used to cross the Turkish border by the war's most dangerous combatants — including the foreign fighters fueling the insurgency of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Mustafa and the human traffickers said.
The prevalence of fake IDs, and the ease with which they can be obtained, highlight a difficulty of cracking down on ISIS's war machine — and of simply determining who's who amid the war's chaos.
Among Mustafa's offerings, the cheapest fake was a credit-card-like document in the mold of Syria's national ID that costs $150. Mustafa agreed to sell one to this journalist — despite some initial concern that he might be aiding a foreign jihadi who was just pretending to be a journalist — after securing a promise that it wouldn't be used for "something bad." He received a passport-style photo by instant message, and the ID was ready in a couple of days.
Mustafa even threw in a driver's license free of charge.
The verdict of four human traffickers shown a photo of the ID was that "the forger is good," as one put it.
"It's a good ID and you could use it," said another, who has a long history of smuggling foreign fighters from Turkey to Syria.
He and others noted that such an ID was most commonly used in crossing from Turkey into Syria, not the other way around, because Turkish authorities are stricter about vetting those entering the country than those leaving it for Syria. It would need to be used by someone with an Arabic name who could conceivably pass, in looks as well as speech, for a Syrian. It could most easily be used at a special border gate through which Turkey lets Syrian refugees return home.
According to the same smuggler, it's also useful to have one when crossing into Syria illegally. "If you are Saudi, for example, and can speak Arabic, then you can use it when you are trying to get smuggled to Syria, because if the [border guards] catch you and you don't have proof to show them you are Syrian, then they will beat you and send you back to Turkey."
All of the human traffickers interviewed for this article — six in total — spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing arrest from Turkish police.
IDs like the one Mustafa provided were among the lowest-quality options. Foreigners serious about entering Syria from Turkey — and especially about crossing back the other way — should use more sophisticated means, the human traffickers said. Among them was a better national ID card made either by corrupt regime officials or on commandeered equipment, which costs between $350 and $450. Most were made inside Syria, then smuggled into Turkey. The high-quality passports were obtained much the same way. A human trafficker working along the Turkey–Syria border, who gave the nickname Khaled, said he believed that ISIS relied on its own teams of forgers to secure such IDs. "They started making IDs for themselves, just to make it easier for them to travel in Turkey," he said.
Mustafa, the young Syrian vendor, had one of these high-quality fake passports himself. It had been printed on a regime computer in Syria, he said, flipping through its pages to reveal entry and exit stamps from Turkey.
Three of the human traffickers work in smuggling refugees to Europe. All said good fake IDs were often able to help Syrians in their quests to travel and settle there. The three recounted sending people from other Middle Eastern countries to Europe as well, using the same Syrian fakes. "They are trying to find a better life there," one said.
The potential for abuse of his fake IDs, in Mustafa's eyes, was what inspired his hesitation in providing one to this journalist.
He was even warier about the idea of securing a fake passport. "What do you want to use it for?" he asked.
Mustafa said he was only interested in helping Syrians piece their lives back together. But there were others, he warned, who didn't share that goal. "We are just doing humanitarian cases, and there are other offices like mine," he said. "If someone like an ISIS fighter came to me, I wouldn't accept to do it. But a lot of people, they do accept it, because they just care about the money."