More than three years have passed since the 35-year-old Syrian national Omar has applied to obtain exceptional Turkish citizenship pursuant to a request from the Department of Immigration in Istanbul. But since then, and until mid-August, 2020, his file has remained suspended in the so-called stage four in the General Directorate of Civil Registration and Citizenship in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
The fourth stage is the most time-consuming one that the candidate has to pass in the process of acquiring the Turkish citizenship, and sometimes he fails. It is crucial in determining the fate of their files, according to those whom we interviewed.
Omar, a father of two children, says that he has an official Turkish work and residence permit registered in Istanbul. He has been working since he arrived in 2013 with an official work permit. He also has health insurance and social security documents.
It is worth mentioning that Omar, who is from the Syrian governorate of Idlib, has never been arrested or detained before. He also asserted that his security and financial evaluation in the procedures to acquire citizenship was positive and that he is not a security or criminal suspect. Still, his file remained pending.
The reporters accompanied Omar to the Immigration and Citizenship Directorate in Istanbul more than once. Every time the employee responded that his file met all the requirements, and he had only to wait.
On the morning of August 22, 2020, Omar and more than five thousand Syrian applicants for the exceptional acquisition of Turkish citizenship were surprised by a message on the Turkish citizenship stages follow-up website, stating that their citizenship files were removed in the fourth stage after waiting for a long time.
The message reads as follows: “Your file for the exceptional acquisition of Turkish citizenship has been removed.”
In this investigative report, we blow the whistle on the phenomenon of brokers who, with the complicity of Turkish civil servants in the Directorates of Immigration, Citizenship, and Security, worked to move the files of Syrians to pass the fourth stage, namely, the “Security investigation and examination stage” in return for bribes and hence acquiring the citizenship. On the other hand, more than five thousand Syrians’ files remained pending until they got canceled without any valid reason.
According to Turkish Law, Turkey grants its citizenship through four ways, namely, residency for uninterrupted 5-year of work, upon marriage to a Turkish citizen, exceptional acquisition of citizenship, or by purchasing a real estate in the amount of minimum USD 250.000 that is not to be sold for at least three years.
According to official figures, 110,000 Syrians have acquired Turkish citizenship since 2016, said the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a symposium held at Bilkent University, on December 10, 2019, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day.
Moving the File
Unlike Omar’s case, who could not afford to pay the broker, and was reluctant to get his citizenship through such illicit means, Firas, a young Syrian (35 years), acquired Turkish citizenship and identity only after 55 days after he contacted a Syrian broker, as his file was advanced in less than a month from the fourth stage to the fifth and final stage, after he paid a bribe of eight thousand dollars. Consequently, he was re-interviewed at the Immigration Directorate, due to the loss of his file in the Civil Registry in Ankara, as he told the reporters.
To make sure that such brokerage is systematic and not some individual incident, the reporters tracked some of the Syrians who were willing to pay bribes to advance their files to stage five and obtain Turkish citizenship.
The reporters documented three different networks of Syrian brokers who have strong ties with high-profile officials from the Immigration and Civil Registry departments and Security Directorate. Most of them change their numbers within a maximum period of 60 days. They never disclose their real names with their prospect customers and always contact them via WhatsApp and Telegram, after a recommendation and a guarantee from one of the broker’s acquaintances or former clients.
At a later stage, the broker requests the file information of the person who wants to obtain citizenship before the subsequent procedures begin.
Samira Fawaz (44 years old) has been waiting for three years to get Turkish citizenship after submitting her application in February 2017. Even though her file meets all the requirements, according to an official reply in the Directorate of Immigration and Citizenship in Istanbul, she is still for more than two years, in the examination and research stage, which has become known as the fourth stage among Syrians. After many inquiries in the Directorate of Immigration in Istanbul, where she lives, and in the Public Civil Registration in Ankara, she did not receive any clear or legal answers that could justify the failure to proceed to the next stage and acquire the Turkish identity.
“I inquired, with the help of a lawyer who has ties in the security directorate, about the fate of my file and found out that it was positive, that is to say, it was clean, and there are no obstacles to obtain the Turkish citizenship, but it remained suspended,” says Samira.
After losing hope to get her file approved, Samira resorted to the other way, which is to pay a bribe. From this moment the reporters accompanied Samira, when she began to probe the matter further until she reached an acquaintance who obtained the citizenship after paying a bribe, afterward, this person contacted a Syrian broker, and upon the broker’s approval, he gave her his number.
Needless to say that the Syrians who wish to obtain citizenship are in deep fear either of getting exposed or being deceived and victims of financial fraud, as the Turkish authorities’ knowledge of the involvement of officials with brokers to grant citizenship under the table shall expose those officials to dismissal and losing the citizenship for those who obtained it.
“I inquired, with the help of a lawyer who has ties in the security directorate, about the fate of my file and found out that it was positive, that is to say, it was clean, and there are no obstacles to obtain the Turkish citizenship, but it remained suspended.”
The first contact between Samira and Hassan, the Syrian broker who speaks Turkish fluently, was about the progress of the process, Samira requested that the money will be paid after moving her file to the fifth stage, but the broker asked her to send her file information to search for ways to advance it, before any talk about money.
Two days later, the broker called her back from a (non-Turkish) WhatsApp number different from the previous one and told Samira that the way is paved to proceed further. He asked for a bribe of nine thousand dollars entrusted to a third party, the same person who gave Samira the broker’s number, provided that he will be given the money after proceeding to the fifth stage. After about 12 days, the broker asked Samira to prepare all her papers again, and re-conduct the interview she had made three years ago in the Immigration Directorate in Istanbul. The reason, as he claimed, was that the files that took all this time or known as pending files are, in fact, lost files, and most of them do not exist.
On August 16, Samira had the interview, and her papers were transferred again. Days later, her file was removed from the citizenship “system” online owing to an incomprehensible procedure carried out by the Ministry of Interior, through which more than five thousand files were removed from the stages and tracking system without explanation.
The woman called the broker, he told her that this procedure made the matter more complicated, but it will not affect her obtaining citizenship, if she agreed to pay an additional amount of money of 17.000 dollars, that is an increase of the agreed amount by 8.000 dollars.
Samira refused on the pretext that she had previously agreed on the amount of 9.000 dollars, but the broker insisted, or he would stop everything. Samira refused to proceed for fear of losing her money and being unable to pay an extra amount of 8.000 dollars. The broker told her that if she withdrew, she would lose her previously paid money and threatened her of his strong ties with the security service. Until the time this investigative report is published, Samira is in two minds, either to go ahead and pay an extra amount of money, or pull back and lose all her previously paid money.
Today, Samira is the victim of the broker and the government’s incomprehensible measures which resulted in removing her file. What made the matter worse is that she lost the money she paid without achieving her goal.
For his part, Abd elkader Flefel, a Turkish activist who follows the topic closely and has a private group on Facebook, with more than 200.000 followers of the citizenship news for the Syrians, always shed light on the frequently-occurred offenses.In an interview with him, he said: “The issue of paying a bribe for moving the file is mushrooming,” he added, “If an official illegally moved up ten files, he would pile up a fortune and would not care if he got the sack or not.”
Money Changes Everything
Although those brokers are very cautious, some of them work publicly and publish ads on social media repeatedly, addressing those who want to apply for citizenship, pass the fourth stage, or even acquire citizenship.
Samer (alias) is a broker living in Urfa in southern Turkey said: “All procedures can be done in return for money, starting by applying for citizenship, advancing the files, and even getting the Turkish citizenship in about 100 day,”
“Upgrading the files from stage 4 to 5 costs about 10000 USD, for normal files, and about 20000 USD for removed files,” he added.
He revealed to our reporters that he only gets a percentage of the sum, as he does not perform the task himself, but transfers it to another broker, who in turn takes a percentage of the money, then refers the files to and the rest of the money to officials in security departments and civil registry in Ankara.
Some brokers deal directly with the officials in governmental entities, others work through more influential brokers, acting as agents. After a few weeks of coordination, we were able to meet with one of the important brokers in Ankara, who has close ties with the officials. He told us that he can finish any papers we need, and that he charges less than other brokers. He explained that most agents charge higher rates as they have to deal with the officials through intermediaries. If a broker can deal with the officials directly, he can reduce the cost to half, where transferring the file to stage 5 would cost 5000 USD, for normal files, and 10000 for removed files.
He added that this was quite impossible, as those officials would be prosecuted and fired from work if they were exposed. He told us that he had just got to know one of the senior officials in Ankara civil registry who set a place and time to meet him, then 15 minutes before the meeting he changed the place. The official left his car at the first place and his personal guard took them to the second place in another car. The first encounters are usually treated with much caution until confidence can be established. He added that he paid 4000 Turkish liras in return for this meeting in addition to an expensive gift to the official. He concluded by saying that their share is less than half the money.
Youssef, another broker in the city of Gaziantep, works in accelerating the Turkish citizenship files, in cooperation with some Turkish people who work in Police stations, in return for money.
We contacted him without revealing our true identities as journalists. We told him we needed his help in accelerating a citizenship process.
In the beginning, he denied he had anything to do with these matters. He said that the fourth stage was the stage of the investigation, which the police handled, and claimed that no one could accelerate the process at this stage or pass it without much scrutiny. He confirmed that the file could take months or years, according to how lucky the applicant is.
After promising him a good sum of money, and that he will have a share in the money paid to accelerate the file, Youssef said, “Send me a copy of your ID (residence permit), and I will send it to an employee at the directorate general of migration to search for the police station in which the citizenship file is located. Then we will agree on the total sum you will pay in order to skip this stage, and discuss the full details of the procedures for this entire process.”
Near the end of 2016, Turkey acknowledged Syrian’s right to acquire Turkish citizenship and declared its plans to grant citizenship to high-caliber Syrian professionals, like physicians, academics, professors, and work permits holders. But the acceptance of Syrian’s application does not conform to any criteria.
Mahdi Daoud, head of the Syrian Associations Forum in Turkey revealed that The number of rejected files was over 15.000 since the Turkish authorities started accepting Syrians’ applications about four years ago.” He explained to Zaman Turkish newspaper that this was the third time Syrians’ naturalization files were rejected, with about four to five thousand files rejected this time.
Huge Sum of Money
The reporters documented 16 cases of Syrians who obtained Turkish citizenship after moving their files to the fifth stage by paying bribes. The total sum they paid together is more than 130.000 USD. The number of people who carried out this procedure is still unknown, for fear that they would be deprived of citizenship. Furthermore, two other Syrians were documented to pay USD 3.000 to have their names added to the list of applicants, facilitate and accelerate their procedures. One of them is Abdul-Mawla, who is a resident of Qatar and comes to Turkey once a year for a 10-day visit. He got the Turkish citizenship in less than 13 months by paying this sum of money.
The phenomenon of brokerage has spread widely on social media, and many have started criticizing it through tweets and posts, through indirectly referring to similar stories.
Despite the change of personnel and cadres of the civil registry in Turkish provinces, yet the process of advancing some of the files is still going on, but become more difficult and at a higher cost.
The reporters contacted several brokers, but only one of them responded to the questions by asking for 10.000 USD to advance the file from stage 4 to 5, and ensure the acquisition of the Turkish citizenship within 3 months.
The reporters tried to get direct answers from the Turkish Ministry of Interior or general civil registry in Ankara, concerning this phenomenon, but to no avail. After several attempts, they were instructed to send their inquiries by email to the press office of the ministry. In mid-April 2020, they emailed the designated email address but received no reply. The email was resent in October 2020, but until the time of publishing this report, the Turkish authorities have not responded to our questions concerning this issue.
A photo of Aksaray Park where smugglers and some brokers meet.
The Distribution of Bribes
The bribes go to three levels in this network, according to the testimonies of the brokers we met in Aksaray in the central of Istanbul (an area where human smugglers and transaction brokers meet.
All those we have met confirmed that the biggest share of the money goes to the employees of Ankara civil registry, those of the immigration department in the province where the applicant resides, and other security officials in Ankara intelligence, and finally to the broker and his partners.
When we contacted Mustafa Abdel-Kader (32 years), a Syrian young man who lives in Turkey, through Facebook, after he wrote about his struggle in a closed group there, he told us that he works as a doctor in the Turkish hospitals, he speaks Turkish fluently, he is married to a Turkish woman, has an official work permit, and he pays the taxes. However, his file was removed from the list of Syrians who are waiting to obtain exceptional citizenship.
“During the crisis of Coronavirus pandemic, the invaluable efforts of the medical staff have been clear. Unfortunately, after all this struggle with the patients, I was rewarded with canceling the citizenship file which I waited for years and it’s all because of the mood swings of one of the employees,” said Mustafa.
The reporters tried to contact more than a broker in Gaziantep, the Turkish city, to confront them with the evidence and documents we have concerning this subject, but they refused to talk to us.
While Omar was still waiting for the routine processes to end and while his file was removed from the tracking system of the Turkish citizenship stages, some of his colleagues who were stuck at this stage found illegal ways to obtain the Turkish identity by paying an amount of nine thousand dollars to Syrian brokers to carry out file transfers in the General Civil Registry in Ankara.
Omar, with a puzzled look on his face, says: “Today, the fate of thousands of Syrians is at the hands of those brokers, due to the administrative negligence in general departments of immigration and personal status as well as the rampant corruption of a segment of the governmental employees. Although the official authorities confirmed that they will not allow this kind of brokerage, this negligence, routine, and corruption have opened the door wide to pile up a fortune from those who search for a document to protect themselves against deportation threats or the change of the governmental policies due to the unstable political equations of the country.
- This Investigative report was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project.