Early this year, Yousef, a 32-year-old Syrian living in Sweden, found himself faced with an impossible choice: either enlist in the army of the government that made him a refugee, or risk his family losing their home back in Syria.
Military service is mandatory for Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 42, and the stakes rose significantly in February when an army official announced on Facebook that a new regulation would allow authorities to confiscate the property of “service evaders” and their families. Pressure was mounting on Yousef to decide.
And so, in June, he made his way to the Syrian embassy in Stockholm with $8,000 (£5,876) in cash, ready to pay the fee to have his name taken off the conscription rolls. A shiver ran down his spine as he collected his receipt.
“This money will be used by the Syrian regime to buy weapons and kill more people,” Yousef told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), his voice trembling.
He is far from alone. About a fifth of Syria’s population of 17 million are men of military age, according to data from the World Bank, and studies have shown that the threat of conscription is a major reason many refugees fear returning.
The Syrian government has been able to leverage this anxiety into revenue, harvesting foreign currency from the roughly 1 million Syrians who have settled in Europe to help prop up its ailing budget after US sanctions cut the country off from the international banking system last year.
Syrian embassies, which used to only process paperwork for the military exemptions, have recently begun collecting cash payments. Two researchers, an airport official, and a former diplomat interviewed by OCCRP and the Syrian Investigative Reporting Unit (Siraj), said they suspected the cash made its way back to Syria via diplomatic pouch. Such a move would violate the 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, which says “packages constituting the diplomatic bag […] may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use.”
Government documents and official statements show Bashar al-Assad’s government projected the policy would raise substantial income, revealing the lengths the Syrian government is going to in order to raise cash. Syria’s army, finance ministry, foreign ministry, central bank, and military recruitment service did not respond to requests for comment.
The US sanctions implemented in 2020 under the Caesar Act have worsened an already difficult financial situation for Syria. Processing payments for vital imports such as wheat and oil products have become even harder as a result, and the Syrian pound, now worth barely 1% of its pre-crisis value against the dollar, has suffered further losses.
“Shortage in foreign currency has become an acute problem, especially after the Caesar Act came into force,” said Armenak Tokmajyan, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The regime needs foreign currency. The more it has, the longer it will survive.”
The government has leaned increasingly on its diaspora to fill its coffers. A Syrian passport is now one of the world’s most expensive to obtain abroad, at about £220 for a new passport, and about £600 to get it expedited.
Syria’s 2021 budget projection predicts revenues from the military exemption fees to reach 240bn Syrian pounds (£140m), up from 70bn Syrian pounds in 2020, according to copies published in Syria’s Official Gazette.
The estimated revenue makes up 3.2% of this year’s budget revenue, up from 1.75% in 2020, the Syrian economist Karam Shaar told OCCRP.
Sweden illustrates how the new amendments have played out among Syria’s diaspora. The Scandinavian country hosts about 114,000 Syrian refugees and is home to tens of thousands of relatively new arrivals.
Between June and August, OCCRP reporters made three visits to the Syrian embassy in Stockholm. They counted an average of 10 applicants a day waiting in the queue for military service exemption.
Another hint of how many people were paying the exemption fees came a year earlier, in June 2020, when the embassy website published the names of 43 Syrians cleared to pay the fee. It is unclear exactly when those on the list applied, but for other procedures, such as passport issuance, the embassy usually issues its lists once a month. The June post was the last such public announcement.
An embassy employee, speaking to an undercover OCCRP reporter, said he could not say exactly how many had applied for the service exemption, but that there had been a “significant increase” in the first half of 2021, which he attributed to the February announcement.
“On some days, 10 come to us and on other days the figure can go up to 50,” the employee said. If accurate, this would mean the embassy could be taking in as much as £30,000 in cash on some days.
OCCRP spoke with 10 Syrians, eight in Sweden, one in Germany, and one in Lebanon, who decided to pay the conscription fee. Some, like Yousef, were frightened by the prospect of asset seizures in Syria. But others had more practical reasons.
One 29-year-old named Ali said he paid the fee at the encouragement of his family, who considered the payment to be “a form of direct participation in the Syrian war effort”.
Gian, a Syrian who works at a home for elderly people in Frankfurt, Germany, said he had no issue in paying the money. “I am getting a monthly salary, the exemption process is easy, and I want to safeguard my family’s property in Syria from being seized,” Gian said. He said three relatives with asylum status in Germany also paid the fee.
But many Syrians are still leery of funding the government they feel was responsible for sending them into exile.
Abdullah Jaafar, a 35-year-old who has been living in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, for eight years, said he saw the exemption payments as a kind of extortion.
“I have the full amount, and I can pay it, but I will not do it,” Jaafar said. “This government is illegal.”
Ali Al Ibrahim reports for Siraj. Additional reporting by Abdullatif Haj Mohammad, Sana Sbouai (OCCRP), and Lara Dihmis (OCCRP)