RAMTHA, JORDAN // A thick stack of aid coupons sits on the countertop of a small, dark convenience store near Jordan’s frontier with Syria. On the front of each voucher is the handwritten name, address and phone number of the Syrian refugee who came to the store and redeemed the piece of paper for a basket of food.
On the back of some of the coupons is additional handwriting: the storekeeper’s scrawled notes detailing which Syrian refugee women are willing to have sex for money and what times of day they are available.
Ramtha, a scrappy town of cement buildings and faded shop signs has, residents say, developed a booming economy in sex, drugs, weapons and purloined international aid – all fuelled by the civil war in Syria.
The shopkeeper pushed the coupons aside and produced a large, gold-covered smart phone that was flamboyantly out of keeping with the sparse dust-coated tins of peas, tuna and vegetable oil on the store shelves.
On the phone’s large screen, the shopkeeper, a married man in his early 50s dressed dapperly in a houndstooth jacket and blue suit trousers, played a video of a young Syrian woman dressed in a flowing black gown who undressed as she twirled, the dance culminating with her displaying herself naked for the camera.
“She costs US$1,000 [Dh3,673] for 24 hours. She’s really beautiful, but I can get discounts on her, and there are all different prices for different women - some are US$100 or US$200 for an hour, some are US$3,000 for the month and you live with them in a temporary marriage,” the shopkeeper said.
His register of refugee women, written on the aid coupons, was compiled during a Ramadan charity drive funded by a Saudi donor who paid for hundreds of food packages to be distributed to needy Syrians.
The shopkeeper carried out most of the logistics work for the charity drive and during the campaign, when he found some Syrian refugee women willing, or desperate enough, to earn extra money through prostitution. Others involved with aid distribution in the area have compiled similar listings, he said.
Some 600,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan, most of them outside of the United Nations-administered Zaatari refugee camp, a place once synonymous with squalor but now, according to some camp residents, significantly improved.
Those living outside the camp and beyond the reach of the UN system often struggle to pay rent and are heavily reliant on alternative sources of help, including private funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other countries in the Arabian Gulf.
While these private donations have extended a lifeline to tens of thousands of people, the cash is not always distributed solely for altruistic reasons, say aid workers and volunteers involved in distributing the cash.
“Everyone who comes here offering aid has some kind of ulterior motive. The UN and Western states, and the Gulf countries, are politically motivated, but some of the private donors come up here for women. They are giving aid, but they use it as a way of finding Syrian women,” said a volunteer from Damascus who helps link private donors with impoverished refugees.
The volunteer, in her mid-20s, said that in the course of her work she often had to fend off propositions from donors who covet Syrian woman.
“There are ways to manage things, but it is difficult to make sure that the money doesn’t have strings attached and that it goes to the right people. Some Syrian refugees are also trying to take more than their fair share, the situation is difficult.”
People-trafficking also is flourishing on the border, say Syrians crossing the frontier, particularly after Jordan imposed tight restrictions at the Ramtha border crossing almost three months ago to stem the flow of refugees.
For months the border has been closed except to a trickle of civilians, mainly women and children, not men of fighting age, as well as small numbers of wounded and rebel fighters with the right contacts to get them into Jordan. Others gain entry to the Hashemite Kingdom by paying traffickers 400 dinars (Dh2,080), according to refugees and members of rebel groups.
“Some of the smugglers take in people and also try to take weapons into Jordan, sometimes they clash with the Jordanian border guards,” said a young rebel fighter.
More often, though, weapons flow from Jordan into Syria, part of a pipeline of support for rebels, primarily backed by Gulf states, in their fight against forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad.
Jordan remains tight-lipped about the illicit trade in weapons and people. Yet rebels and residents along the frontier attest to the transfers, saying in the case of weapons that they mainly involve ammunition and small arms but, more recently, Saudi-supplied pickup trucks mounted with high-calibre guns.
“Every month or two before a big attack by the Free Syrian Army, a convoy of cars without number plates comes past, they pick up weapons and go back to Syria,” said a Jordanian who lives along the road that leads to the Syrian frontier and is familiar with the trafficking of weapons.
In addition to the steady flow of arms, the shopkeeper says Ramtha has become a destination not only for hashish and other drugs but for Saudi men seeking Syrian wives.
“There are apartment buildings and homes that have been paid for by donors for refugees to live in, but they are really just nightclubs now,” he said. “And we get lots of people from the Gulf coming for wives, second wives sometimes, they like them aged between 15 and 22 years old.”
The shopkeeper said he was opposed to people marrying teenagers and only took clients to see women who were in their 20s.
A veteran security adviser working with an international organisation dealing with refugees confirmed that some privately rented buildings and hotels along the border were being used for prostitution and that the transactions typically involved young Syrian women and Saudi men who have driven into Jordan from across the desert.
“It’s something everyone is aware of but it’s not a simple problem to solve. This kind of thing unfortunately always pops up on the edges of war zones - people come in and exploit the desperation of refugees who don’t have many choices about how they feed their families,” he said.
Khaled Khalaldeh, Jordan’s minister of political and parliamentary affairs, said that, unfortunately, people taking advantage of the desperate during conflict was not uncommon in any part of the world.
“During times of war there are people who break the law, thefts including exploitation of women. They are taken advantage of because of their difficult situation,” he said.
For his part, the shopkeeper has little, if any, sympathy for the Syrians who have sought safety in Jordan from a war that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and, according to the UN, uprooted another 6.1 million from their homes.
“No one forces them to do this. They worked as prostitutes before. It is their profession, and I think they are disgusting people.”