Investigative Report: 54,000 Syrians smuggled out of Zaatari Camp through bribery and black market

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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 their 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 wanting to leave the camp must submit a legal guarantee by a Jordanian sponsor. 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 the complicity of camp security personnel 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 aid supplies to be sold for profit 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 the investigation, a Syrian couple convinced 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 hiding among the goods behind us. Next to us was Abu Ali, who coordinated 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 - I will throw a stone at you to stop, but keep going.”


Once the truck crossed the Zaatari borders, 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 descended after paying the driver 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 Zaatari public security offers had been arrested and taken to police court for accepting bribes. He refused to give details on the exact number or their charges stressing that Jordanian security services behave in a clean and proper manner and that this is not a common phenomenon.


We requested further information from the Directorate of Public Security and the police court, according to our legal right of access to information. We asked for the number of security personnel who’d been charged with bribery and the specific charges and procedures in their cases since Zaatari Camp’s opening. Repeated requests since August 2013 have not received any response.


800 public security personnel guard Zaatari Camp, charged with prevention and reduction of smuggling refugees and goods. Gendarmerie are 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 service personnel are subject to the penal code and its individual legal devices – namely, so-called “military discipline,” which ranges from demotion to salary reduction to solitary confinement to termination of service.


In Khayyat’s opinion, bribery of Zaatari security personnel in exchange for allowing refugee smuggling is an ethical violation and offense punishable under the law.


Zaatari Camp director Abu Shehab has dealt with 429 cases of smuggling “refugees, goods, caravans and tents." All have been turned over to the appropriate authorities to prevent continued smuggling in the future, he said.


Multiple ways of smuggling


Refugee smugglers work in various ways, the most common of which is through transport of goods. Cargo trucks enter Zaatari under permission to transport goods, and then 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 added 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


We spent eight mo

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