The refugee crisis shaking the world has come to be narrowly defined as Syrians fleeing the war, trying to enter Europe. But the ones trying to enter the West are only a small fraction - less than 10 per cent of the millions of refugees for whom Europe remains out of reach. All this week, on Exodus, a special series on NDTV, we trace the invisible roots of the refugee crisis from its point of origin along the Syria Turkey border to the gates of a divided Europe.
ISTANBUL: As dusk fell on Aksaray square in the heart of Istanbul, the refugees began to gather with their luggage. Some were women with children; others, young men in small groups or alone by street carts. The place soon resembled a train station, filled with expectation and the promise of a journey. Except, the people weren't waiting for a train but to make contact with passport forgers.
For the hundreds of migrants - many of them Syrian - that have escaped wars, often without documents, the forgery network holds out the possibility of reaching the West and a better life.
According to an estimate, nearly 70 per cent of Syrians have fled without passports.
All Syrians we spoke to in Aksaray were too afraid to talk, fearing identification by the Bashar al-Assad regime back home.
But with the help of a facilitator, we were led to a cafe just a stone's throw away, to meet a prominent member of the forgery racket.
The tall, lean young man asked that we called him Oday, and that we mosaic his face once the TV cameras are on. He was more than willing to share in detail the workings of this booming illegal trade.
Oday, who says he is from the Golan Heights, says that once contact is made, all refugees need to give him their basic details and photographs. In two days he says, the passport is ready.
"Faster than the embassies," said Oday,
But the price is heavy: 700 to 1,000 Euros for a fake passport for any country in Europe. The price barrier explains why only a tiny fraction of refugees - about 10 per cent - can actually afford to attempt to make the trip to Europe, compared to those who remain in the Middle East, close to Syria's borders.
"Passports for France or Germany are more expensive. Also, some passports are not fake but genuine, just sold after changing the names and photos," he said.
The smugglers don't guarantee success. But the money is deposited with a third party, to be handed over when the refugee reaches his or her final destination. "They only need to get out of Turkey. Once they get to Europe, they declare themselves refugees and have to be taken in," he said, adding, "We don't take the money upfront. A third person gives it to us once the passport holder is out of Turkey."
Oday wasn't bragging. Sefik Dinc, an Istanbul-based journalist with the paper Haberturk pretended to be a Syrian refugee and bought a forged Finnish passport in two days, exposing the rot in the system.
A charitable explanation for why forgery operates so freely is so Syrians get a free passage. According to an official Turkish report, nearly 70% of the refugees left behind their passports in Syria and have no chance of getting them back.
But Oday's clients include other nationalities : Afghans, Iraqis, Chechens.
Supplying passports is no charity work. Oday described a well-oiled 'multinational' criminal network concentrated in the hands of powerful ringmasters, startlingly with an Indian connection.
According to Oday, all the passports come from two main sources. "I don't know them personally but I get the passports from a group controlled by three men of different nationalities - Iranian, Turkish and Syrian," he said.
"I only deliver the documents. The bosses pay off the police on the border," Oday admitted.
He says a parallel group is headed, among others, by an Indian. "There's another group," said Oday. "I have heard of it but don't know personally. It consists of an Algerian and an Indian. Indians are known for their good work in making passports."
Just last week, the European Union vowed to crack down on smugglers networks driving the migrants crisis. But nothing had changed for the smugglers in Turkey, said Oday. "It's just talk. We haven't had any problems," he said.