TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A group of five Syrians paid smugglers $10,000 each to travel through multiple countries before being detained for carrying false Greek documents in Honduras, their epic journey exposing a little-known southern smuggling route for Syrians fleeing war in their homeland.
The young men have told human rights activists their final destination was next-door Guatemala, because their Turkish people smuggler who guided them by phone through an unfamiliar continent promised jobs and a house waiting for them there.
But relatives of one of the men, 19-year-old Lourans Samaan, said he was trying to reach his brother in the United States and find work. They said Samaan is a Syrian Christian from a village near the city of Homs, one of the hardest hit in the war. Two more of the men have Christian names.
“He is a young man, he wants to earn a living, and what will he do in Syria, it’s so dangerous,” said his brother-in-law Issa Amissa, speaking to Reuters from the United Arab Emirates.
About 10 percent of Syria’s population is Christian, followers of some of the world’s oldest Orthodox churches.
The five men, aged 19 to 30, were part of a wider group of seven Syrian nationals who acquired forged passports in Brazil, a U.S. source said.
The men traveled from Syria to Lebanon and then made their way to Brazil on Syrian passports, said rights activist Miroslava Cerpas, who has had access to the men in custody. Their trips were financed by parents and families.
From Brazil, they went by land to Argentina before heading north, the U.S. source said. The group then spent “several days” in Costa Rica, before flying to Honduras, said an official in Costa Rica with direct knowledge of the case.
They were stopped in Honduras because their passports lacked a required yellow fever vaccination certificate, Cerpas said, although Honduran officials say they spotted that the documents were irregular.
A second U.S. government official said it appeared the five traveled to Honduras because they believed border controls would be lax there. Their passports were obviously forged, the official said, raising questions about how they were able to move through earlier border controls with such apparent ease.
The other four men gave their names as Majd Ghanout Kousa, Fady Freej Shehada, Mazen Mikhail and William Ghanem. Some of the men said they were from Hasaka, another city racked by violence. All five have sought refugee status in Honduras.
Samaan told Cerpas he had been on the road for almost a year. His brother-in-law said he last saw Samaan a year ago. Samaan’s brother, who asked not to be named, said he spoke to him in Argentina.
“We are simple Christian people, we have no problems, he just decided to go anywhere safe,” the brother told Reuters, adding Samaan told him he had met someone who would help him reach the United States for money.
A spurt of detentions in Latin America in the past week has exposed what could be a larger trend of Syrians traveling on doctored Greek passports far from traditional trails out of their country to Europe.
Three Syrians, also traveling on Greek papers, were picked up on the tiny Caribbean island of St Maarten last weekend.
A Syrian woman was arrested at a hotel in Costa Rica on Thursday for traveling on a forged Greek passport. She was wearing a wig that also appeared in her passport photo.
The woman, who identified herself as Alaa Bustati, 27 years old, also carried a ticket bound for Spain, though it was unclear if it was valid, according to a police source.
In Paraguay, police detained a Syrian man with a stolen Greek passport. A Paraguayan state prosecutor identified the man as Abd Al Elah Khallo from Hasaka.
“The Syrian people are very good. There are foreigners who are not from the country who are doing terrible things,” the Syrian told Paraguayan television station Telefuturo, bursting into tears as he recalled a mortar that killed a young boy from his neighborhood.
He said he lived in Turkey for a year before heading to South America and was aiming to head to London via Mexico.
The cases have sparked alarm among some U.S. lawmakers after reports at least one of the attackers involved in the deadly shootings and suicide bombings in Paris last week may have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.
U.S. officials said they believed the group was headed for the United States but emphasized there was no evidence they had links to militant Islamists.
The next leg of the journey for the five men in Honduras was set to be the most risky.
Both Guatemala and Honduras are plagued by poverty, unemployment and violent crime. Every year, tens of thousands of their citizens make their own life-threatening journeys through lawless regions of Mexico controlled by drug cartels to try to reach the United States.
So far, only a tiny number of Syrians have been detected emulating the journey across Mexico. Only a handful have sought U.S. asylum via that route this year, including a family of eight on Thursday. Only nine have been detected illegally transiting Mexico this year and none have turned up in migrant shelters.
The five may have chosen Brazil as their port of entry into Latin America because the country is seen as more hospitable to Syrians. It recently extended a two-year refugee visa program for Syrians fleeing their civil war, one of the signature humanitarian efforts of President Dilma Rousseff’s otherwise modest foreign policy.
The country has taken in nearly 2,100 Syrians, a quarter of its overall refugee population over the past two years. About 6,000 more were issued visas but have not made the long journey to Brazil.
Last month, however, Brazil detained eight Iraqi nationals who police said were traveling on false Greek passports they had obtained in Turkey. A trickle of immigrants also reach the U.S. land border from other countries fighting Islamist insurgencies.
Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires, Daniela Desantis in Paraguay, Caroline Stauffer in Brazil and Gabriel Stargardter and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein in Mexico City, Enrique Andres Petel in Costa Rica, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Gardner, Ross Colvin and Peter Cooney