- The Jordanian government has confiscated nearly 219,000 Syrian identity papers, in violation of international agreements.
- The Jordanian Directorate of Syrian Refugee Affairs acknowledges exceptional incidents of middleman-police cooperation.
- The Interior Ministrywithheld information from Radio al-Balad, with the support of the Intelligence Council.
- A middleman issued a work permit for the head of Radio al-Balad’s Investigative Unit for JD16.
Amman – Jordan (September 1st)
Two years after fleeing to Jordan from Syria, Bilal was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: his brother, working in Saudi Arabia, called him with news of a potential job in Riyadh. He asked him to prepare his papers and his passport as quickly as possible.
But Bilal’s dreams of traveling and supporting his family soon evaporated. It was still illegal for him to work in Jordan: he didn't have a work permit.
Bilal, 29 years old, couldn't take advantage of the new job opportunity in time because his documents- his passport, family notebook, and his identity card, were confiscated by the Jordanian Directorate for Syrian Refugee Affairs when he registered as a refugee in the Bashbasha Transit Center, in Ramtha near the Syrian border, in November 2012. Bashbasha was closed in early August 2012: all 2500 of its inhabitants were then moved to the Zaatari refugee camp.
But Bilal’s case was not unique: between 2011 and late 2013, Jordanian security forces and the Jordanian Directorate for Syrian Refugee Affairs seized some 219,000 Syrian identity papers.
This investigative report demonstrates that these measures- in violation of international agreements- prompted the emergence of a black market for the sale of identification documents (passports, ID cards, family notebooks, drivers’ licenses) seized from Syrian refugees upon entrance to Jordan. It also brings to light cooperation between Jordanian middlemen, Syrian refugees, and officers working for the Directorate for Syrian Refugees, resulting in either the illegal production of refugee work permits or the return of all personal identity papers for 50-150 Jordanian Dinars (70-210 US dollars) bribe.
In addition to increasing surveillance on Syrian refugees executed by the Interior Ministry, document confiscation persisted until December 30th 2013 when the Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali issued regulations ending the confiscation of refugee identity documents.
The head of the Jordanian Directorate for Syrian Refugees Affairs, commissioner Waddah al-Hamud, confirmed that from December 30th 2013 onward the Directorate returned close to 53,000 documents- a quarter of the total identity documents confiscated beginning with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in Spring 2011.
Jordanian regulations concerning refugee identity documents are particularly significant because they determine whether or not refugees can leave Jordan or seek asylum in a second country. They also determine refugee activity within Jordan itself, such as employment within Jordan, obtaining marriage licenses, signing rent leases, and obtaining driver’s licenses.
Refugees without Identities
Eighty Syrian refugees confirmed in interviews with Radio al-Balad that they resorted to middlemen and bribes for the return of their identity papers because of complexities in returning them through official channels, in addition to the lack of clear government procedures.
Additionally, 83 refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp, among them Bilal, confirmed in both group and individual interviews a month prior to publication that, despite applications to camp administrators for the return of their documents and/or bribes paid to middlemen, neither resulted in the return of their confiscated identity documents.
Radio al-Balad was also able to confirm that middlemen collaborated with policemen to illegally issue work permits for the Syrian expatriate community, normally issued by police stations, for 15-50 dinars per permit.
Document confiscation signifies lack of government adherence to the 1998 United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)referendum and its amendments, which specify the necessity of giving refugees legal headquarters in accord with international standards, along with prohibiting the seizure of documents, according to legal expert, Dr. Muhammad Musa.
Legal activist, Riyadh Subh, was able to confirm that document confiscation violates the 1998 UNHCR referendum, adding that it was specifically in violation of Point 5.
Bilal’s efforts to reclaim his identity documents began in February 2014,with an official application to the head of the Zaatari refugee camp. The documents themselves are kept in in Ribaaal-Sarhan Transit Center. (Figure 4)
But he was told there were no documents present under his name.
The next day, Bilal traveled toRibaa al-Sarhan, where the documents were being held, 10 km away from the Zaatari refugee camp. They told him they were not responsible for handing over documents and that he needed to apply for the return of his documents in Zaatari, stating it was responsible for such services to its inhabitants.
That same day, he applied to Zaatari officials once more, this time explaining that he needed the documents in order to travel to Saudi Arabia.
The officer in charge promised to provide a photocopy of the documents to present to the Saudi embassy and said that upon receiving anentry visa to Saudi Arabia, his documents would be returned. However, despite Bilal’s multiple visits to Zaatari officials-more than ten- he never received a photocopy and the opportunity of a lifetime slipped through his fingers.
“I tried getting my documents through unofficial channels- through middlemen- for about 50 dinars for each document, but I was sure my personal documents were lost.” Bilal said.
Bilal was certain that his documents were lost post-confiscation, by Jordanian officials, so he demanded a solution to his travel problem, but they said they couldn’t issue him a temporary Jordanian passport so that he could leave the country.
Radio al-Balad has inspected Interior Ministry policies and can confirm that since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, it has not published any directives regarding the process of document return nor are there any pre-existing mechanisms facilitating document return. Instead, all that was found was a list of refugees who had applied for document return issued by camp management.
According to the Directorate for Syrian Refugee Affairs, documents could not be returned to refugees living outside the refugee camps and that they could only be returned 8 months after being initially confiscated.
Bilal’s complaints were mentioned to the Directorate’s commissioner al-Hamud. “I cannot say for sure that the documents were lost, but I can say that we file and store the documents with the utmost precision. But it’s another issue altogether if a person claims he cannot his documents are lost.”
The Interior Ministry responded to Bilal’s criticism in writing, explaining that they keep the documents of those coming from Syria at the border checkpoint, to confirm that they did not enter illegally and that they would be classified as humanitarian cases.
The Jordanian Government: in Violation of International Law
Riyadh Subh also questioned how, considering that the documents are refugee property, they could be seized, also labeling it a violation of international agreements.
Subh further criticized the Jordanian government for “punishing refugees by withholding their documents for entering illegally” even when “the government could simply make copies of the documents instead of seizing them.”
In cases where the documents are lost or the Jordanian authorities do not allow the refugees to use their papers to travel to other countries-Syria or otherwise Subh explained “the Jordanian government is legally and morally required to issue travel and immigration documents, if the refugee is at odds with their home embassy.”
Stripped of its Authority: the UNHCR
The UNHCR, through its representative to Jordan, Andrew Harper,alluded to the illegality of confiscating refugee documents.
“In an ideal world, the refugees would be able to possess their personal papers because that makes it easier for them to return to Syria.
We do aspire towards that goal, but at the end of the day, the decision goes back to the Jordanian government.” said Harper, an Australian national.
The Jordanian Directorate for Syrian Refugee Affairs further justified the confiscation of documents by stating that such regulations are purely in place to maintain Jordanian security, regardless of international agreements, indicating thatdocument confiscation under current circumstances was not in violation of international refugee regulations.
The Black Market
Radio al-Balad accompanied Abu Taha, 30 years old, to Zaatari for returning documents through another Syrian refugee who called himself Abu Khaled, 55 years old, who works as a middleman for Zaatari refugee needs. Their meeting was recorded on a hidden camera. Abu Taha entered Abu Khaled’s van and they had the following conversation:
“What sort of documents do you have access to?”
“Passports, ID cards, etc.”
“Can you bring them within the hour?”
“Yes, but we’ll only be able to bring a passport.”
“Ineed all of them: it’s difficult with just one.”
“Hopefully within 10 minutes we’ll return them all.”
“Give me your date of entry, your name, and the document’s date of issue.”
“It’ll cost 200 dinars for the passport.”
“No, I’m not paying more than 50 dinars per document.”
“I don’t take more than 10 dinars myself. But the officer I work with and his superior all need to get paid.”
We waited with Abu Taha for more than an hour until Abu Khaled brought his documents. He mentioned that the officers took the papers out of the file and returned the file, now empty, to its place. Abu Taha was able to receive his documents after making two payments adding up to a total of 150 dinars, in addition to requesting Abu Taha’s discretion on the matter.
Abu Khaled refused Radio al-Balad requests for further interview.
Middlemen and the Police
Ahmed, a 30 year old Syrian refugee living in Zaatari, was attending a wedding when he met four police officers, who told him they could pay him 15 dinars per document to act as a middleman. The entire operation would cost 50 dinars per document. He later reported delivering 20 documents over the course of a month, but stated that the agreement with the four policemen came to an end due to a disagreement regarding the separation of labor.
Shortly after, Ahmed met secretary working in Rabaa al-Sirhan who agreed to work with him, giving Ahmed 5 dinars for every document returned.
This middleman refused absolutely organizing any meetings with police officers who could confirm his claims. Similarly, Radio al-Balad was not able to authenticate any connections between dealers and policemen without exposing the middlemen. Entry of Rabaa al-Sirhan was also forbidden to both middlemen and policemen, on the heels of a decision by the Directorate incorporating Rabaa al-Sirhan into military territory.
During 11 months of field investigation, Radio al-Balad met 10 middlemen, ages ranging from 25 to 50, one of which was Jordanian and the rest were Syrian, working on their own for the return of documents. They charged between 50 and 150 dinars for each document recovered. Four of the 10 dealers worked out of Irbid, where nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees live (out of a total population of 1,250,000). Three work in Zaatari, where 80,000 refugees live. Three others work in Mafraq city, which has 300,000 inhabitants, half of them Syrians. Depending on the middleman, the number of documents returned were about 18, adding up to 6000 over the course of 11 months.
“I helped some 200 friends and acquaintances secure work permits through someone called Anas” reported Mohannad, a 25 years old Syrian refugee. The work permits are specifically issued for the Syrian expatriate community, issued by police stations, to identify its owner and ease their day to day legal dealings. Nearly 586,000 Syrians have received the permit since they've begun being issued in early April 2014, according to the Interior Ministry. Additionally, 130,000 Syrian refugees have received magnetic cards, issued after registering their eye prints.
In order to get a work permit, according to al-Hamud, “Refugees must have their Syrian identity documents but if they don’t, they can apply with sponsorship issued by camp authorities or through an acquaintanceship with a Jordanian citizen. They also have to list a place of residence and receiving a certificate declaring that he is free of disease.
Radio al-Balad requested that Muhammad arrange an interview with Anas, who works as a work-permit middleman in cooperation with Irbid policemen and he agreed.
We met Anas close to the Jordanian-Kuwaiti Bank on University Street in Irbid at the end of November 2013 and requested that he issue a work permit for the head of Radio al-Balad’s investigative reporting unit, Musab Shuwabekeh.
“I need a picture of him, written on its back his third name, and his birthday.”
“And this’ll be an original ID card? It won’t be forged?”
“Of course, they’re not forged. I have issued more than 1000 ID cards. Every Syrian in Irbid knows me.”
After more than two weeks, we asked Anas if we could come to his house to receive the card. He handed over the work permit with Musab’s name, picture and an ID number (800144911). On the back, it bore the seal of the Irbid police and the date of issue (30/12/2013).
During fieldwork in the Irbid Central Police Station, Radio al-Balad confirmed that the cards were not forged and came from the Station’s apparatus for producing work permits.
Regarding our questions on document falsification, the Directorate’s commissioner al-Hamad said “This sort of investigation requires specificity: I cannot answer you on individual cases on which information has not been released. You can ask at Rabaa al-Sirhan.”
Radio al-Balad also posed questions regarding middlemen-policemen dealings. “These are limited incidents and do not represent the whole. When they do happen, they are dealt with on an individual basis by different police forces. Some of them have been fired and others are living out prison sentences in corrective centers.
Radio al-Balad also asked al-Hamad on the number of policemen who had been fired and imprisoned, but received no answer.
Al-Hamud added. “We do not keep records involving identity documents, sponsorship and allowing refugees to leave camps. We do not tolerate government corruption, where it involves Syrians or otherwise.”
The Interior Ministry Obscures Information
We submitted a request to receive information from the Interior Ministry, in accordance with Law 47, year 2007, which mandates freedom of information. The Interior Ministry did not respond to 15 out of 24 of our questions posed regarding the documents of refugees:
- The number of policemen that were fired due to accusations of document sales to their original owners or other third parties starting in Spring 2011.
- The number of policemen that were tried for abusing police resources to sell confiscated documents.
- The number of individuals arrested as middlemen selling confiscated documents to their original owners and other third parties.
- The number of policemen arrested for illegally issuing work permits for Syrians in exchange for monetary compensation since Spring 2011.
- What Jordanian policies regulated refugee possession of their documents.
Radio al-Balad launched a complaint with the Council of Information, citing the unanswered questions and calling for adherence to Law 47, but the Council rejected most of our complaints, stating that information requested regarded classified information.
The Syrian Embassy
A source within the Syrian Embassy in Amman who preferred not to give his name stated that Syrian documents are technically the property of the Syrian nation- they’re published by the Syrian government-and that no other country should be allowed to confiscate them.
Jordan bears the responsibility of dealing with documents of refugees through the dealers and making their living conditions better, considering that these regulations are in violation of international agreements.
The confiscation of documents also makes it extremely difficult marriage, divorce, and childbirth difficult.
“The Jordanian government is implicated in the process by knowing about the proliferation of the middlemen and their exploitation of the refugees both inside and outside the refugee camps. Due to the increasing gravity of the situation, we must take the necessary steps to end these harsh and effective measures.” said Ahmad al-Masry, the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces in Jordan.
This plight afflicts nearly 169,000 Syrian refugees and will continue as long as the Directorate confiscates their documents, allowing the dealers material gains on the account of the humanitarian plight of the refugees.
With pain, anger and echoing lost dreams, Bilal bitter said “It’s not my fault they lost my documents. I assumed that they were in safe hands when I submitted them to the government, so why do I or any other refugee have to pay to have them returned?”
This investigation was compiled by the Investigative Unit in Radio al-Balad, under the supervision of Musab Shawabkeh, with the support of ARIJ (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.