Gray passport: what are the dangers of 'almost legal' schemes?

Gray passport: what are the dangers of "almost legal" schemes?

Anastasiia Zapevalova
23 May 2024

After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2024, both countries faced mass emigration. According to the latest UN data, more than 6.5 million Ukrainians are living in refugee status around the world. The Opora civic network, citing data from the Border Guard Service, counted more than 8 million Ukrainians abroad in June 2023: this number includes both refugees and people with "regular" residence permits or passports of other countries and travelers. According to rough estimates, after the war, about 20% of its citizens ended up outside Ukraine.

In the case of Russian citizens, it is more difficult to estimate the number of those who left, as there is no clear mass criterion that would be easy to track - temporary protection status. In October 2022, Forbes cited figures of up to 1 million people who left. According to the BBC as of May last year, more than 155,400 Russians have received residence permits or temporary residence permits in Europe, Turkey and the CIS. Another 15,000 to 17,000 Russians applied for asylum in the EU and about 2,000 were granted it. Outside the statistics are people moving between countries that allow long-term visa-free stay of Russian citizens and those who already actually reside in another country, but have not yet received a residence permit.

At the outbreak of war and amidst waves of mobilization or rumors of war, there are spikes in the number of departures, and it is not always possible for immigrants to make informed decisions in a state of heightened anxiety. Wishing to secure a "plan B" and stability in a new country as quickly as possible, or fearing to be "stuck" in the refugee status, people may turn to intermediaries who work according to the so-called gray schemes. These involve obtaining passports quickly on the basis of false documents - usually of national origin.

What are gray schemes?

Gray schemes are methods of obtaining civil documents, such as passports or residence permits, that are on the fringe of the law. They often involve the use of false information or forged documents. These schemes are most popular in countries with a rich history of migration:

  • Hungary
  • Bulgaria
  • Moldova
  • Romania

How to recognize fraudsters?

Sometimes, when turning to intermediaries who offer such services, a person may not realize that he or she is involved in document fraud. On the websites of companies operating such schemes, it is emphasized that their methods are legal, and in conversations with clients, intermediaries do not directly say that it is about falsification. As a rule, in the conversation you will be promised to "find" roots in this or that country, without specifying what exactly will be done. If you know for sure that your grandmother, for example, had Hungarian citizenship, but the documents have been lost, you need to contact a specialist who deals with genealogical research. They can order certificates from the necessary archives or extracts from church and parish registers. These will be real documents that you can use to apply for citizenship. Companies that guarantee to "find" your roots you don't know about are scammers, and the documents they will prepare for you are fake (at best, a birth certificate of an unrelated person, at worst, a completely forged document).

What countries' passports do they usually offer to obtain in this way, and what consequences can the owners of these passports face?

Popular gray schemes

The most popular option offered by intermediaries working under such schemes is to obtain a passport on the basis of forged documents linking the applicant to a representative of an ethnic group from one of the countries that were formerly part of the USSR or neighboring countries. Citizenship by national origin is granted by Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania, among others, and it is with these countries that most of the passport fraud cases that have been uncovered are connected. To obtain a passport, false birth certificates of the applicant's grandparents are used, indicating their nationality as Hungarian or, for example, Bulgarian, or real birth certificates of people with whom the applicant is not actually related.

Thus, in Moldova, in 2022-2023, about 30 attempts to obtain citizenship based on the birth certificates of people born before World War II, after 1935, and who died in early childhood were uncovered. Applicants in these schemes claimed to be the child or grandchild of such a person, and the person had emigrated because of the war or had been deported. The fraud was concealed with the assistance of corrupt representatives of the Moldovan Public Services Agency. The authorities claim that among the people who took advantage of this scheme were two Russian multimillionaires. Their names were not disclosed, but it is known that they were denied citizenship.

Bulgaria has tightened checks on the documents of applicants for citizenship based on national origin amid increasing cases of fraud. In 2023, the check revealed several cases of filing under false birth certificates, but the exact number was not specified at the time. However, earlier this year, the authorities in the media reported on an investigation into a company that helped up to 4,000 Russian citizens obtain passports on fake certificates. The examples the journalists found used Bulgarian-language birth certificates issued on the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. The documents had consecutive numbers and were filled out in the same handwriting - the fraudsters probably used preserved blank forms. The service was sold openly online on a Russian website and positioned as a legal way to obtain Bulgarian citizenship.

The official investigation is still ongoing, but the main suspect in the case, the alleged organizer of the scheme, Gleb Mishin, was able to leave Bulgaria without any problems. The only sanction against him was a 10-year ban on entering the country. This fact indirectly confirmed the suspicions of deputies and journalists that the fraud company was working under the cover of officials from the migration authorities.

A similar case happened to Ukrainian citizens in Hungary before the war. For naturalization in this country, you need to show your descent from a Hungarian citizen and knowledge of the Hungarian language. In 2019, the former head of the Transcarpathian regional state administration Hennadiy Moskal said that the Hungarian authorities allowed the heads of rural, village and city councils of Transcarpathia to take the language exam and oath. "It turned out that more than half of the passports were issued to those who are not ethnic Hungarians, do not know the language, live in Kyiv or somewhere else," Moskal said, specifying that the owners of such passports received documents confirming Hungarian origin for a bribe.

The fake birth certificate scheme is not only used in countries where citizenship can be obtained by national origin. Last year, in Mexico, where citizenship is granted by birthright, there were also trials against officials who helped illegally obtain the document. The details of the case were not disclosed, but it likely involved granting citizenship to children who were not actually born in Mexico.

Another fraud option that brokers can offer is to falsify documents in order to obtain asylum. In the U.S. In 2021, court hearings began in 2021 in several cases of Russian citizens who helped clients obtain asylum in this way. They claimed that they and their clients were being persecuted in Russia, including by creating fake social media accounts in which they created the illusion that they were not safe in Russia (e.g., posing as members of the LGBT community).

Romania is not exempt from such practices either. In 2016, a scandal came to light involving corrupt officials who were selling EU citizenship for as little as £1,000. This scheme was uncovered through a high-profile investigation that exposed how fraudsters were fabricating false documents for individuals from countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, enabling them to seek employment in the UK. The audacity of the criminal gang was evident when they advertised their illicit services in a Russian-language London newspaper, boldly using the slogan "It's almost legal."

The cost of such intermediaries varies greatly depending on the country and the scale of the group's work. The cheapest passports in Romania started at less than $1,000. As a rule, scammers claim that their schemes are "almost legal", but do not forget that by using such services, you are putting yourself at serious risk.

Consequences of participating in gray schemes

To begin with, it should be mentioned that scammers promoting such services can take money and fail to deliver what they promise. Sometimes the scheme is not to make the client a passport on false documents, but to get an advance payment and disappear. Moreover, you will not be able to complain about the fraudster's actions to the police without disclosing your intentions to obtain a passport illegally.

In brief, the consequences of participating in gray schemes:

  • Loss of documents received.
  • Fines and legal problems.
  • Deportation and ban on entry to EU countries.
  • Prohibition to obtain a residence permit or citizenship in the future.

Let us consider each of them in more detail.

If you do obtain a passport from one of the European countries under such a scheme and the fraud is discovered, you will, first of all, lose the passport of that country and other documents obtained on its basis (for example, residence permit in another country). In addition, you may face a considerable fine for violation of migration legislation. Then you will face deportation with a ban on entry to the country whose citizenship you obtained illegally, as well as a ban on entry to the country where you resided on the territory of which you have forged documents. This means a ban on entry to the EU, as you will be on the "black list" and it will be very difficult to obtain a visa. Moreover, being on the list of persons who violated migration legislation and participated in document fraud will actually deprive you of the opportunity to obtain a residence permit or passport in an EU country or countries cooperating with the EU through diplomatic relations. The database of violators is common and it is checked by migration services when checking the candidate's background. Access to these databases, as far as we know, is also available to Caribbean countries that offer citizenship-for-investment programs. Such countries are serious about checking the candidate, so it is unlikely to get a passport from Grenada, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda and other countries with investment programs after participating in the "gray scheme".

Legal ways to obtain a residence permit or citizenship

If you want to obtain a residence permit or citizenship of another country as quickly as possible, but you do not have the right to claim citizenship by national origin, there are other legal ways.

Legal ways to obtain a residence permit or citizenship:

  • Through official migration programs.
  • Through citizenship-by-investment programs.
  • Using professional migration agencies to properly apply.

They may be more expensive or take longer, but they are the only ones that are a reliable "Plan B" and provide a guarantee for a secure future for you and your family. We have reviewed the options of the fastest and easiest processing of residence permits and passports for Ukrainians in this article, and are also ready to answer your questions at a free consultation with Migronis specialists.

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