54,000 Syrians Smuggled out of Zaatari Camp Through Bribery and the Black Market

7 January 2014

28 year-old Syrian refugee Nasreen moaned inside her tent at Zaatari Camp. Labor pains had come to her in grim conditions – the fear, stress and cruelty of asylum. Her husband sat next to her, bewildered, pleading with God to let his wife give birth in peace.

She moved to the camp hospital as the labor pains continued through the night, where it was decided that a surgery was needed for the birth. Afraid of undergoing the operation inside a tent without complete medical equipment, her husband decided to pay for he and his wife’s nighttime escape to a hospital in Amman. He paid 100 dinars for a smuggler to take them illegally out of the camp.

The administration of Syrian refugee camps in the Directorate of General Security requires that any refugee anting to leave the camp must submit a legal guarantee by a Jordanian sponsor. The bailout sponsor must show the administration his place of residence. Otherwise, refugees can only exit the camp for 3 days maximum.

Nasreen and her husband are among nearly 54 thousand Syrian refugees who have fled Zaatari illegally out of the 130 thousand Syrian refugees living there, according to the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior.

This investigation reveals camp security personnel’s complicity with Jordanian and Syrian dealers alike in smuggling Zaatari refugees through cars, trucks and water tankers – making 50-150 dinars per refugee – as well as smuggling refugee aid supplies to be sold for favorable prices in local markets.

Zaatari camp, which opened in mid-2012, is built on 220 square meters of territory north of Jordan’s Mafraq Governate, just 15 km from the Jordanian-Syrian border and 70 km from the capital, Amman. The largest camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, it has a capacity of 150,000 refugees, living among 17,000 caravans, 8,000 tents and 3,000 shops.

Personal experience

At ten in the morning, we arrived in a large yard near Zaatari’s UNHCR office. Cars, small buses, pickups, vans and loud hawkers filled the area. “Last passenger… last passenger,” the hawkers called, waiting for the last refugee to be smuggled out of the camp illegally.

As part of my personal investigation, the Syrian and her husband agreed with the driver of a small pickup trick to bring a Jordanian along on their trip. We exited with two 15-member families who had paid 200 dinars each.

The driver waited until noon, when the camp security forces change shifts, to start the truck and leave the camp securely – it’s easier to do so when a new security officer has just started his shift.

We rode in the front seat, with fifteen passengers behind us hiding between the goods. Next to us was Abu Ali, who was coordinating the smuggling operation with Bedouin security officer Abdul Salam.

We started driving on an unpaved side road. We drove our Bedouin security forces’ car past a security point with a bus and four individuals, none of whom stopped us.

Abu Ali was on the phone with Abdul Salam, who said, “Go, and I will throw a stone at you to stop, but keep going.”

Once the truck passed the borders of Zaatari, we passed a Bedouin forces’ checkpoint. Abdul Salam’s stone hit the car but the driver kept going, according to the agreement between Abu Ali and Abdul Salam.

Five minutes later, the truck stopped. Abu Ali descended, taking 50 dinars from the driver and saying “I swear to God, I’m not taking anything. This all goes to Abdul Salam.”

We arrived in Khalidiya and asked the driver to descend after paying him 140 dinars, 70 dinars for each person.

Public security response

Director of Syrian refugee camp affairs Wadah al-Hamoud said that a small number of public security offers had been arrested for accepting bribes inside Zaatari Camp and had been transferred to police court. He refused to give details on the exact number or charges against them, stressing that Jordanian security services behave in a clean and proper manner and that this problem is not a common phenomenon.

We requested further information, using the law guaranteeing right of access to information, from the Directorate of Public Security and police court, asking for the number of security personnel who’d been charged with taking bribes and the specific charges and procedures in their cases since Zaatari Camp’s owning. Since August 2013, we have not received any response.

800 public security personnel guard Zaatari Camp, responsible for prevention and reduction of smuggling refugees and goods. The gendarmerie is also in reserve in case of camp security situations – that is, “in the event of demonstrations or an attack on security forces,” says Zaatari Camp director Zaher Abu Shehab.

Article 170 of the penal code defines bribery as any employee, official or person of public service accepting a gift, promise, or other benefit in exchange for informal services.

According to lawyer Leen Khayyat, security services employees are subject to the penal code and its legal advices which apply to every individual – that is, so-called “military discipline,” which ranges from demotion to salary reduction to solitary confinement to termination of service.

In Khayyat’s opinion, Zaatari security personnel’s taking bribes in exchange for allowing refugee smuggling is an offense punishable under the law, because the perpetrators hit a wall of ethics.

Zaatari Camp director Abu Shehab has dealt with 429 cases of smuggling “refugees, goods, caravans and tents,” turning them all over to the appropriate authorities to prevent continued smuggling in the future, he said.

Multiple ways of smuggling

Refugee smugglers work in various ways. Transport of goods is the most common means of smuggling refugees. After the cargo trucks enter Zaatari under permission to transport goods, they unload their cargo and take on refugees, who negotiate with smugglers for a price of 50-100 dinars per person. The truck then carries them out of the camp’s rear gate without inspection, according to Jordanian smuggler Abdulrahman Ghalib.

35-year-old Ghalib also said that smuggling takes place via water tanks. The tankers that enter the camp to resupply water also take on refugees and bring them out of the camp.

Zaatari has two gates: the main “Visitors’ Gate,” which is the less intense and thus more expensive option for smuggling, costing up to 150 dinars per person. The road is straighter and smoother, in contrast to the “Side Gate” of the camp, which leads to a rocky, broken and insecure path.

Smuggling market

Over eight months of visits to Zaatari, we documented the work of eight smugglers specializing in illegally bringing Syrian refugees out of Zaatari. They smuggled 800 Syrian refugees in one week, 14 people per day per smuggler.

The brokers received 62% of each person’s 50-dinar smuggling price, bringing them a range of daily earnings around 300 dinars, after distribution between the driver, smuggler, auctioneer and security personnel collaborators.

Half the documented smugglers were Jordanian citizens, while the other half were Syrian. 37% were over forty years old. The rest were younger.

All these smugglers lived in Mafraq city and its surrounding areas. 50% of them used small trucks to smuggle refugees from the camp.

Ministry of the Interior: Zaatari “Under Control”

Several days before publication of this investigation, we received a written response from the Ministry of the Interior’s official spokesman. The statement included an estimate that 54 thousand Syrians escaped from Zaatari before the camp’s reorganization, largely due to a lack of security control, insufficient humanitarian aid and a flood that occurred in January 2013.

The spokesman stressed that no cases of smuggling are currently occurring in the camp, which is now surrounded by dust shields and strengthened security forces/Bedouin gendarmerie. He also mentioned “dozens of cases” in which administrative officials are addressing the issue of refugees exiting the camp.

In response to the Ministry of Interior’s statement, our colleague attempted to enter Zaatari as a visitor. He was prevented by security personnel at the main gate from “visiting family,” which prompted him to enter the camp on foot through an olive tree grove above some mounds of dirt. A 17-year-old smuggler helped him enter for a price of 10 Jordanian dinars.

Our colleague wandered for several hours in the camp and found that very few refugees are being smuggled out by car – but individual smuggling continues.

Our colleague used the same means and path to exit the camp, accepting the services of another 15-year-old broker for 15 Jordanian dinars. 

Smuggling with impunity

According to Public Security Director of Syrian Refugee Camps Wadah al-Hamoud, no penalty exists against those who smuggle Syrian refugees from Zaatari Camp. Written law defines crime, he said, and smuggling refugees from the camp is not a crime in Jordanian law. Smuggling is a foreign term to our society, he said.

Al-Hamoud added that the administrative court is taking appropriate action on refugee smuggling.

To find out the number of dealers taken to court on charges of Zaatari smuggling, as well as the actions taken against them, we submitted an official request to the Directorate of Public Security for information. We did not receive a response.

We also addressed the Minister of the Interior in mid-June 2013, asking for a response to our efforts at communicating with multiple governors to ask about the refugee issue. He gave us no response.

When a fugitive from Zaatari camp is arrested, he is sent to Jordanian court and made to pledge not to leave the camp illegally again. Then he is returned to Zaatari, according to Al-Hamoud.

Other stories: Smuggling supplies

Not only are Syrian refugees illegally smuggled out of Zaatari, but so are aid supplies from the UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP).

10-year-old Syrian Mohammad works in a small shop in the “Arabian heat” of Zaatari Camp. He empties the bags of WFP-supplied food that are distributed to camp refugees for free, placing the contents of the large canvas bags in the trunk of a pickup truck painted in Jordanian colors. We follow the pickup truck to discover that it sells its cargo in Khaldiyah region, 4 km away from Zaatari Camp.

We visited 15 stores in the markets of Mafraq, Ramtha and Irbid to find shelves stacked with Syrian aid supplies given by the WFP and UNHCR. They are sold in these shops at favorable prices ranging 50-75 percent below the usual in Jordanian markets. A kilo of lentils in Jordanian shops costs 120 dirhams, whereas Zaatari lentils are sold for 50 dirhams per kilogram.

The WFP distributes 2000 tons of food in Zaatari Camp every day, in addition to half a million pieces of freshly baked bread every day – about 4 pieces per capita.

The program distributes six main types of food: lentils, oil, bulgur, rice, sugar, and date biscuits. Individuals receive 2100 calories a day, adding up to 11 kg of total food materials each month.

“Zaatari consumes about $4 million dollars a month on food, or $30 per refugee,” said WFP media spokesperson Dina al-Qasbi.

When each family reaches the camp, the UNHCR gives them a tent, mattress and pillow for each individual, said UNHCR Director of Cooperation and International Relations, adding that the refugees have full rights over usage of the aid supplies, on the condition that they do not leave the camp.

During our visit to nearby markets in the Mafraq area, we found  new Syrian refugee tents on sale for 30-50 dinar. Used tents went for 15-25 dinars.

In early July 2013, Zaatari camp security services caught smugglers trying to remove six thousand tents from the camp. They also found 7 tons of WFP-distributed food under a smuggling attempt, said the Camps Department Director WAdah al-Hamoud.

Forged bailout guarantees

Dealers do not only smuggle Syrian refugees from the camp. Some also provide forged bailout guarantees that allow refugees to leave the camp, selling them for prices ranging from 75 to 150 dinars.

35-year-old Syrian refugee Ibrahim Imad escaped the camp illegally. A Jordanian dealer offered him a bailout guarantee for 75 dinars, promising that Imad would also receive legal permission to work.

Days later, Imad visited the Irbid district auditor, only to discover that the bailout was forged and missing an official seal. He would not have permission to work, Imad said.

From the opening of Zaatari camp until October 2013, the number of Syrian refugees has grown to nearly 49,000, according to official numbers from Zaatari’s head of public relations and information security Salah al-Sharafat.

Syrians who want to leave Zaatari must have a Jordanian sponsor who is over the age of 35, can prove residence, has some close relation to the refugee, and pays a bail of five thousand Jordanian dinars, said Department of Camps Director Wadah al-Hamoud.

If a Syrian is arrested outside of the refugee camp without bail or official documents, he is sent to court, made to pledge not to leave the camp illegally, and then returned to Zaatari, said al-Hamoud.

Syrian refugees can leave the camp for three days if they send a request to the Zaatari Department of Social and Humanitarian Affairs. The department registers the refugee’s data, takes his UNHCR card from him and returns it upon his reentry into the camp. An estimated 50-100 leave Zaatari camp daily, according to Camp Director Zaher Abu Shehab.

Impact of Asylum on Jordan

Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Ibrahim Saif said during a meeting with international organization representatives in November 2013 that the total cost of Syrians’ presence in Jordan will amount to 1.7 billion dollars annually, according to Agence France Press (AFP).

Syrians’ direct costs require $700 million annually, he explained, while infrastructure costs amount to $870 million annually.

Each Syrian refugee in Zaatari costs the Jordanian government 78 piastres daily, almost 2,500 Jordanian dinars per month. The total cost of refugees in 2012 was $449.902 million dinars, while the estimated cost for 2011 is about $140.28 million, according to a study by the Economic and Social Council research team.

In contrast, the United Nations estimated that hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan from 2013-2014 would cost about $5.3 billion dollars, of which only 777 million dollars has been secured.

According to official figures published at the end of a closed UN meeting on refugees for international agencies, organizations and donor countries in Amman early this November, Syrian refugees’ presence cost Jordan an estimated $2.1 billion dollars in 2013. In 2014, it is estimated to cost nearly $3.2 billion dollars.

Ministry of Labor media spokesman Haitham Khasawneh said that the Syrian presence in Jordan has threatened the state’s economic security by replacing Jordanian labor with Syrian labor. More than 150,000 Syrian refugees aged 18-65 work in the service sector and in manual production, with 2,646 of them having work permits as of August 2013.

Khasawneh said that Jordan’s unemployment had grown by 1.4% after Syrian refugees’ entry into Jordan, from 12.8% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2013.

In terms of education, Ministry of Education figures show that 85,000 Syrian students were in Jordanian schools in August 2013, mostly spread in tows and villages close to the Jordanian-Syrian border.

As for security, 100 crimes have been recorded inside Zaatari camp from January to August, including theft, adultery, drugs and attempted murder, said camp director Zaher Abu Shehab.

Toleration of security personnel’s participation in illegally smuggling Syrians from Zaatari threatens to exacerbate the security and economic problems of a country already lacking in natural resources.

This investigation was compiled by the Investigative Unit in Radio Balad, under the supervision of Musab Shawabkeh, with the support of ARIJ Network (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism – www.arij.net


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