Fake identity cards can easily be obtained in Romania and Bulgaria, and many illegal migrants use them to reach Western Europe.
By Adrian Mogos in Bucharest, Dobrych, Byala, Timisoara, Aachen and Berlin
June 2009, undercovere voting for elections for European Parliament
For a few hundred euros, I obtained a new Romanian identity complete with a new name of Turkish origin. For the next few months I was no longer Adrian Mogos, but Murad Alin Erdogan from Timişoara. Why choose a Turkish name? Because most illegal immigrants crossing Romania on their way to Western Europe are Turkish and I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
It was not difficult to obtain a fake identity card, nor to use it, even though the penalty for such crimes in Romania ranges from three months to three years in prison. I simply used my contacts within the underworld.
Early this June, I tested out my fake ID, to see if Murad Erdogan would be able to vote in Romania's European Union elections. I went to a polling station in Bucharest, filming undercover. Nobody noticed anything and no officials in the polling station questioned my identity.
I did not intend to vote, as this would have been a criminal offence, so I ticked all the candidates, knowing my voting slip would be registered null and invalid.
Days later, I headed to Germany to see if Murad Erdogan could start a new life there. I encountered no problems or any questions about my documents while in Germany and The Netherlands.
Finally I reached Berlin, a place where anyone can blend in. I had no connections there, but felt confident I could set myself up in Kreuzberg, the colourful home of many immigrants in the capital.
With almost no money, it was time to make Murad Erdogan a respectable citizen by getting his legal documentation into proper order. First of all, he needed an address. Wandering the streets, I spied a small placard on a building reading "Stellplätze zu Vermieten" [parking spaces for rent]. Thinking that a building with vacant parking spaces must also have apartments for rent, I noted the name and phone number of the company that owned the building, Ernst G Hachmann Gmbh.
On June 29, armed with this information, I headed for Kreuzberg city hall to obtain an official document registering me at that address. The municipal official I met at no point sought proof that I possessed a contract with the building's owner. In spite of my poor German, and the fact that I was using only my fake ID, I was registered by the city as living at the address I had chosen within minutes.
his was not the end of Murad Erdogan's quest for a new life in Berlin, however. If he was to achieve anything, he would need a bank account, and so I stepped into the first bank I encountered, a branch of Berliner Sparkasse.
The bank manager was happy to help out after seeing the registration form concerning Erdogan's new address. After a few questions about why I wished to open an account, account number 6014519775 was ready for use.
Next I needed a telephone. Using the same registration form I had obtained from the city hall, I bought a small mobile phone with five euros of credit for only nine euros. In Germany, every SIM card must be registered in a customer's name, so mine was registered under "Murad Alin Erdogan".
Finally, I visited Schufa, the German credit information agency that determines whether a person is economically active and financially trustworthy. After giving the registration form from the city hall, the bank account details and 7.80 euros, a member of staff handed me all the papers I needed.
Thus, in the space of only two days, I had obtained an official address, opened a bank account and received proof that Murad Erdogan was a financially reliable resident in Germany.
A bearded old man I saw in the Schufa office was less lucky, and didn't get the papers he needed. "You don't have the registration form from the city hall," a clerk told this elderly German citizen.
The Aachen connection
I flew on to Aachen, a German city with a strong Turkish community. Located near the border with Belgium and The Netherlands, Aachen is a good place for illegal immigrants to hide, according to local journalists.
On arrival, I sought out the Bucuresti Bistro Sam, a tavern on Viktoriastrasse 30. Though it was closed when I found it, up until April the pub had been owned by Terzi Sukru, a 43-year-old Turkish citizen with permission to reside in Germany.
Last summer, according to Romanian prosecutors, Şukru met five Romanian citizens who later became regular patrons of his restaurant. But their friendship ended badly, as they were amongst the 12 men arrested along with Sukru by Romanian police in the town of Deva in April. They were charged with trafficking migrants into Germany from Turkey.
They were apprehended after two of Sukru's beneficiaries, also Turkish citizens, were arrested on the Romanian-Hungarian border trying to use fake identity cards to cross into Hungary. An undercover police agent had been a member of Sukru's team the whole time.
According to Romanian prosecutors, Sukru had close ties to the Turkish community in Aachen, many members of which were keen to illegally import their relatives into Germany, and willing to pay a lot for the service.
The indictment states that several of the Turkish nationals Sukru intended to bring into Germany had obtained tourist visas to enter Romania from the Romanian consulate in Istanbul. They had done so without submitting the proper documentation. Others had obtained business visas to enter Europe from the same authorities.
While the Romanian foreign ministry denies any involvement in, or knowledge of, illegal actions carried out by any of its employees, some Romanian public servants question this. "I doubt all our visas are being issued legally," one policeman confided. "This [kind of thing] could happen only with assistance from inside the embassy."
Sukru is currently on trial and is being held in a Romanian penitentiary, and his former neighbours seem relieved that there are no more fast cars and street fights in Viktoriastrasse since his Aachen tavern closed. "People can finally get some sleep," said one woman in her sixties. Ironically, she ran the small tailoring business that once supplied clothes for the topless dancers in Şukru's establishment.
As explained earlier, I had no difficulties getting and using a fake identity. But in some cases, the forgery of documents is not possible without the complicity of Romanian officials.
This is a growing problem. In April 2009, for example, Romanian police arrested several people who apparently specialised in identity forgery, all of whom intended to use forged documents for illegal activities. One was a civil servant from Timisoara, charged with issuing least 24 such documents.
The National Inspectorate for Persons' Records, INEP, in Bucharest, says only two public servants were arrested last year for handling forged identity cards. The first was from Timisoara. The second was head of the office issuing identity cards in the eastern Romanian town of Iasi. According to the Romanian Police's Anticorruption Unit, this man had provided several illegal cards whose recipients were thus able to travel freely into the EU Schengen states.
He was sentenced to three months' jail in 2008, after prosecutors proved his involvement in the issuing of two forged identity cards. The investigation continued and, in May 2009, he was again sent to court over a further nine similar cases.
According to INEP police chief-commissioner Anca Berbecariu, the racket in forged Romanian personal documents only took off after Romania joined the EU in 2007. "Romanian identity cards weren't forged much before the country joined the EU because there was no interest in it," she said.
A debate is now ongoing in Romania over the need for new identity cards. So-called "electronic cards" are considered harder to forge and are already in use in several EU states. Such cards are scheduled for introduction in Germany in late 2010. Romania is set to roll them out in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Romanian police have their own internal problems. According to a June press release from the General Border Police Inspectorate, IGPF, 14 senior officers were under internal investigation for failing to control illegal migration and cross-border crime.
Another 11 had been disciplined for failing to fulfil their obligations after the IGPF uncovered "a series of breaches of duty in combating illegal migration and cross-border criminality".
While a fake document is a counterfeit that resembles a genuine one, a forged document is a genuine ID on which some data has been altered.
About 98 per cent of forgeries are created by chemically erasing data written on legitimate documents and then rescanning the photo. The INEP admits that identity documents forged with insider help can be hard to detect, and the border police agree. "In 99 per cent of cases, these forged IDs cannot be detected by classical means, such as using the naked eye, an ultraviolet lamp or other tools that border police possess," police commissioner Emil Torje, head of the Bors border checkpoint, said.
Regional fight-back begins
Trafficking persons using fake or forged documents is only part of a broader criminal operation across the Balkans, which includes trafficking drugs, guns or cigarettes.
Turkish citizens aiming to move to the West tend to prefer the "Balkan route" owing to the ethnic composition of the countries on the way. They rely on elements within the ethnic Turkish minorities living across the region to support their illegal activities.
The Romanian media reported the arrest last year in Bucharest of a Turkish drug dealer who ran a heroin business worth over 4 million euros a year. He was found in possession of a forged Romanian ID, a fake Bulgarian ID, a passport and a driving licence issued by the Bulgarian authorities and a forged German driving licence.
As criminal networks operate region-wide, governments also understand the need to cooperate if they are to make headway against traffickers. One major development in this field was the 1999 establishment of the Southeast Europe Cooperative Initiative, SECI, and its Bucharest-based Center for Combating Trans-border Crime.
The SECI was set up to coordinate the work of the region's police and customs officers against organised crime. All the main intelligence and anti-trafficking units from Europe and the US have permanent representation at SECI, while Interpol and the World Customs Organization provide permanent advisors.
The SECI works hard to thwart traffickers, but its task is hampered by the latter's skill. "The traffickers have a very accurate knowledge of the national legislation of the states lying on the 'Balkan route'," police commissioner Cristian Duta, a SECI official, explained. "And there isn't a single mastermind who controls everything, but numerous small gangs."
Pressure on EU and Schengen borders
On average, six Turkish citizens are caught trying to cross Romania's western border illegally every day. Police data show that half are found in possession of fake or forged identity cards, with which they attempt entry into Hungary, the first Schengen-zone state they meet on their way to Austria or Germany.
To combat this phenomenon, Romania introduced a "risk profile" system to help its border policemen in their work in early 2009. All Turkish citizens aged between 20 and 35 bearing new passports, with Romanian visas issued for between 10 and 15 days, must be carefully inspected.
Few of those framed within this risk profile are found to have legally left Romania following police verification using the Romanian Immigration Office database.
Police commissioner Petru Ghezea, head of the border police at Negru Voda, near Bulgaria, says illegal migrants are usually caught on Romania's western frontier on their way to the EU Schengen states, using fake identity cards or hiding in vehicles. Most have permission to enter Romania but not the Schengen zone.
Locals from Dobrych, Varna and elsewhere in Bulgaria began using Negru Voda to smuggle migrants into Romania after the Balkan country joined the EU in 2007.
According to the Romanian Border Police, Turkish migrants then use a number of ways to illegally cross the border into Hungary. Having legally entered Romania, they obtain fake documents, mainly Romanian and Bulgarian forgeries, or fake Schengen visas.
They pay between 1,000 and 1,500 euros for fake Romanian identities, depending both on how well the fake cards are manufactured, and on the nature of the agreement struck between the criminal and the migrant.
Prices are higher - ranging from 4,000 to 8,000 euros per person - for the illegal transportation of migrants to the West in lorries carrying medicine, fruits, furniture, glasses or vegetables.
Would-be migrants say it is not difficult to get a Romanian visa. Last year, the Romanian consulate in Istanbul alone issued around 11,000, both for touristic and business purposes. The Romanian Foreign Minister insists all these visas were issued legally.
However, Romanian officials admit that Bucharest is facing an increased number of people trying to enter and leave the country illegally. Last year, there was a 67 per cent recorded rise in the number of illegal immigrants compared to 2007.
In the first four months of 2009, the number of migrants trying to illegally leave Romania, often hidden in vehicles, was 45 per cent higher than in the same period last year.
The Border Police now face large-scale reorganisation in the run-up to Romania's accession to the Schengen zone in 2011 or 2012. Hundreds of border police officers must be relocated, and the 'buffer zone' along the path taken by illegal migrants provided by non-Schengen Romania will disappear.
"We don't know what institution we'll be working under, but the migration issue will remain," Petru Ghezea predicted. "The need for border police will remain whether the borders vanish or not".
There is every indication that real immigrants, rather than fake ones like Murad Alin Erdogan, will continue to risk their lives and pay great sums to reach Western Europe. Transit countries like Romania and Bulgaria will have to fight hard against sophisticated transnational smuggling networks, which will always find new ways to get around whatever border enforcement systems these countries establish.
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.