Assad profiteering from the Syrian crisis: refugees call home on regime's network

Published January 16th, 2013 - 09:13 GMT
Syrian refugees try to remove water which had collected inside their tent after heavy rain in the Zaatari refugee camp. (AFP PHOTO/KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Syrian refugees try to remove water which had collected inside their tent after heavy rain in the Zaatari refugee camp. (AFP PHOTO/KHALIL MAZRAAWI)

The Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan sits just a few kilometres from the Syrian border.

Situated just east of the city of Mafraq, a new city has emerged from the Jordanian desert, and continues to grow by the day. In the first six days of 2013, 9000 Syrians crossed the border to reach the relative safety of the camp, a sprawling tented community, hemmed in by a mix of razor wire and ‘Darak’ – armed soldiers.

The main entrance hides the true form of conditions, as locals shuffle past the first line of soldiers, with the occasional Jordanian trying his luck as an impromptu taxi driver aiming to ferry visitors the couple of hundred meters to the next gate.

Once inside, the vastness of Zaatari is a shock. Towards the end of the dust swept main road, we were told we would reach “the highest point in the camp,” according to our guide from the Hashemite Charity Organisation, the body with overall control of the camp.

This ‘high-point’ is both physical and figurative. The small hill, in reality a pile of mud and boulders, is no more than five foot higher from ground level. It is the only point inside the camp where refugees can use their own mobile phones to catch the Syriatel signal, the largest mobile network in Syria, enabling them to call home to loved ones.

Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and maternal cousins. The BBC says that no business can operate in Syria without Makhlouf’s say-so, and it was reported that he was funding pro-regime protests by providing money to ‘supporters’ along with food and other supplies.

It feels like a final indignant moment for the camp's population, forced to withstand freezing temperatures and conditions that are far from ideal. The worst snow storm for twenty years swept through the camp last week, causing tents to flood, and one of the only ‘entertainment’ areas for children – a vast tent with two swings – to be used as emergency shelter.

Standing above the forced émigrés on this hill, refugees hold their phones aloft, topped up with credit from smuggled vouchers from Da’ara, the crucible of the uprising which has cost upward of 60,000 lives, with millions displaced, desperate to contact friends and family back home.

Makhlouf became the target for the rebellious masses in the southern city when protesters shouted, "We'll say it clearly, Rami Makhlouf is robbing us." It appears now that the some 60,000 in Zaatari are being robbed again, and potentially helping to fund the very uprising they have escaped by using their phones to check on friends and family who still suffer at the hands of the Assad regime.

By Matthew Woodcraft


Is Rami Makhlouf profiteering from the Syrian crisis? Should the refugees find another way to call home? Tell us what you think below. 

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