AMMAN—Adnan Ananzah, a 27-year-old Jordanian, moved to Saudi Arabia a few years ago when he couldn’t find a job in his home country. But even though he is an electrical engineer, he couldn’t find a position there that paid him enough to cover his rent and other expenses.
Since he returned to Jordan in 2015, he still hasn’t been able to find a job. Desperate, he recently took a surprising move that by some accounts is becoming increasingly common in the Hashemite Kingdom. From the small savings he kept from Saudi Arabia, he spent $4,000 to buy false Syrian identity papers and left for Turkey in hopes of eventually reaching Europe as a refugee.
“I was very frustrated and wanted to emigrate to Europe by any means,” Ananzah said recently before he left.
Jordanian officials are skeptical that citizens of the kingdom are masquerading as Syrians and turning to smuggling operations to reach Europe. But other sourcesincluding a university professor, self-identified smugglers and young people who say they have chosen that path—tell a different story.
Mustafa Hawatmeh, a sociologist who is teaching at the University of Jordan this year, said instances of Jordanians posing as Syrians were increasingly common, given the county’s sluggish economy.
Unemployment in the kingdom stands at more than 18 percent—its highest level in 25 years, according to the Jordanian Department of Statistics. But for some groups, the problem is far worse. For young people between the ages of 22 and 24, the rate is 41.5 percent. Among women, the jobless rate is around 30 percent. More than 23 percent of Jordanians who have earned a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree can’t find a job. (See a related article, “Jordan Data Suggests Universities Contribute to Unemployment.”)
Hawatmeh said most of his students were looking to emigrate in search of a better life, but the methods some choose are “very dangerous” and “evidence that there is a major societal imbalance has begun to emerge recently.”
Ward al-Maaytah, 33, was a high-school graduate who hadn’t worked for seven years when he struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be a refugee smuggler in a cafe in Zarqa, in eastern Jordan. He sold his mother’s jewelry to raise $3,000 for false Syrian papers.
“I know there are tens of thousands of young people who travel to Europe in this way,” said al-Maaytah. “So I accepted and started the adventure. The situation in Jordan is intolerable—huge taxes, no jobs and corruption.”
Mustafa Mahmoud, a 39-year-old smuggler, didn’t help al-Maaytah, but he said he had helped at least 2,000 young Jordanians obtain Syrian documents so they could pose as refugees seeking haven in Europe.
Saying only that he works in the public sector when not smuggling people abroad, Mahmoud viewed himself as a good Samaritan. “My work is not terrorism or immoral,” he said.
His clients leave Jordan using their Jordanian passports. They usually fly to Istanbul Atatürk Airport, in Turkey, where they present their Jordanian papers to border control. Then they meet Syrians who are part of the smuggling ring who give them fake Syrian papers.
From there, the Jordanian migrants head to the coast with the goal of reaching Cyprus and then Europe, Mahmoud said. They throw away their Jordanian passports once they leave Turkey so they might start a new life from scratch.
Mahmoud said he takes around 10 percent of the fees he charges would-be refugees.
Another smuggler, Mahmoud Hussein, a 53-year-old taxi driver, said he has been trafficking Iraqis from Jordan to Turkey and Europe since the start of the second Iraq War in 2003. Four years ago, he started to see Jordanians asking about smuggling as well. The Syrian civil war gave him an opportunity to help them, too. His brother-in-law is a Syrian who works as a security official, so he can easily counterfeit identity documents for his clients.
Hussein is partial to Jordanian university students who have little hope of finding a job that matches their training.
“They are suffering, especially the fear of unemployment, rising prices and the unbearable taxes,” he said. “Most of them say they want to emigrate and not return. Some even envy the Syrians fleeing to Europe on boats of death.”
Jordanian security officials, however, expressed doubts that people were actually posing as refugees to get to Europe. The spokesman for the public security unit in the Interior Ministry, Colonel Amer Sartawi, said Interpol or other authorities would surely have detained and discovered the true identity of at least one Jordanian citizen en route to Europe if such human trafficking were occurring. But that has not happened.
“Assuming that there is any illegal emigration of Jordanians to Europe, we would know,” he said.
But some Jordanians say they dream of making such a journey.
Hanadi Imad, 40, a housewife in Zarqa, said she would be happy to abandon Jordan and go elsewhere. She and her husband have been discussing how he might leave and how she might later follow.
“I wish my husband could emigrate in any way so that we can live a better life,” she said.