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Road to nowhere: Syrian long-haul truckers find themselves trapped in Egypt’s Sinai

Syrian-owned trucks sitting in line in Nuweiba, Egypt on November […]

20 December 2018

Syrian-owned trucks sitting in line in Nuweiba, Egypt on November 20. Photo courtesy of Abu Omar.

AMMAN: In his decades-long career as a long-haul truck driver, Damascus-born Abu Omran Muhammad had made journeys exactly like this one dozens of times over the years.

Rolling his big-rig off the brown shoreline at Taba, a small port town on Egypt’s Red Sea coastline, onto the rusty deck of a cargo ship operated by the government-affiliated Arab Bridge Maritime ferry company, he was intimately acquainted with the three-hour journey across the choppy bay to the Jordanian city of Aqaba.

After making landfall, Muhammad would often head north along the desert highways towards Iraq, or south along Jordan’s Red Sea coast to deliver bananas, tomatoes and other goods to Saudi Arabia.

Then late last year, when applying for a Jordanian transit visa in Cairo where he lives with his wife and children, Muhammad faced his first roadblock. All vehicles operated by Syrian drivers were no longer permitted to make the voyage across the Red Sea.

“In the past, we’d apply and they’d just give it to us,” Muhammad tells Syria Direct. “They didn’t reject anyone and things were fine until 2017, when we started getting many rejections.”

“Since then, I’ve been applying constantly and just getting rejected.”

In an era defined by stifling restrictions on the movement of Syrians, with myriad visa regimes, borders and travel barriers preventing everyone from Syrian refugees to businessmen from crossing into neighboring states and beyond, the small community of several hundred Syrian truckers residing in Egypt was once a rare exception.

A dusty lot of parked trucks in Egypt’s Nuweiba is a sign of how things have changed.

Owned by Syrian drivers who would once drive across the region, the trucks reflect how Syrian drivers can no longer get the necessary permissions to cross borders while their parked vehicles collect astronomical fees from the Egyptian government at the same time.

Drivers who spoke with Syria Direct said that the increased scrutiny and jump in rate of rejections did not coincide with any particular event, and many expressed bewilderment at the change.

Syrian-owned trucks sitting in line in Nuweiba, Egypt on November 20. Photo courtesy of Abu Omar.

There have been attempts to help the stranded truckers—and an official agreement between Jordanian and Syrian authorities was struck on December 9, after months of lobbying by the Assad government.

The deal allows for the safe transit of around 500 Syrian-registered trucks, currently trapped in Egypt and Sudan waiting for something to change in the bottleneck at Jordan’s Aqaba border crossing, through Jordan and back to Syria.

The prospects for repatriation overland to Syria had seemed next to impossible prior to a pro-government offensive in July on the country’s formerly rebel-held southwest, which ultimately allowed the Syrian government to retake the Naseeb border crossing between Syria and Jordan.

The Naseeb crossing was subsequently reopened—the first time since 2015—in October, and cross-border trade has slowly started to pick up.

And yet, while clearing the way for Syrian vehicles to cross Egypt to the northern border crossing of Naseeb, this month’s agreement overlooked an important part of the equation: safe passage for Syrian drivers.

“About 500 Syrian vehicles have a problem here because they have a Syrian driver,” says Muhammad Hassan, another Syrian truck driver who has been living in Egypt since 2014.

For people like him, working in a sector that by definition requires a great deal of freedom to move and cross borders, the immediate result of the transit visa rejections has been severe economic hardship.

Unable to deliver their own vehicles to Syria, he and other drivers say that many vehicle owners had little choice but to pay Egyptian drivers to deliver trucks across the border back in to Syria.

“They are paying Egyptians at least $1,500 just to bring the vehicle across for the Syrians and then return by plane,” he says.

Several Syrian drivers told Syria Direct that Egyptian regulations prohibited foreign vehicles from remaining more than 14 days in country–even though some say it has been two years since they were last able to cross the Red Sea for Jordan. After that point, a weekly $100 penalty sets in–a crippling sum in a country where annual GDP per capita does not exceed more than $2,800.

Syrian-owned trucks sitting in line in Nuweiba, Egypt on November 20. Photo courtesy of Abu Omar.

Muhammad Abdul Hay, another driver who has spent the past three years in Egypt, has dodged the fee by making frequent, unnecessary trips to the Sudanese border.

Every seventh day after being 14 days late, Egypt imposes a fee of 100 dollars,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t manage to go to Sudan, so I have to pay 400 dollars a month if I don’t get the truck out.”

Arab Bridge Maritime is the ferry service, sanctioned by both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments, that runs all marine transport between Aqaba and a small array of ports across the water in Egypt. In practice, the company acts as the gatekeeper for all individuals boarding transport across the Bay of Aqaba.

Amjad Maswadeh, chartering manager at Arab Bridge Maritime, told Syria Direct that the responsibility for granting transit visas and allowing Syrian nationals to enter Jordanian territory rests with the Jordanian Interior Ministry.

“When it comes to Syrian nationals, the Jordanian government must run a background check of all drivers coming from Egypt,” he says. “If they don’t have proper paperwork then we’re the ones who will be in trouble.

Hanan Khalil, a spokesperson for the Jordanian ministry, said she could not comment on the ongoing issue of Syrian truckers trapped in Egypt. However, she added that the procedures for obtaining a transit visa were unchanged for commercial or non-commercial vehicles and drivers coming from Egypt.

“If a Syrian in Egypt wants to enter Jordan, they need to get the visa from our embassy in Cairo,” she said.

Meanwhile, in a vacant lot near the Egyptian port of Nuweiba, dozens of big-rig trucks with Syrian license plates sit gathering dust. Their owners are scattered across the diasporasome of them eking out a living in Egypt or Sudan, others have given up their vehicles and returned to their homes in Syria.

Once a symbol of the open road crossing what were once easily traversable borders, for Abdul Hay, his truck has now come to represent an image of his own immobility. Fees from the Egyptian government are stacking up, but he feels he has little other choice than to continue holding out, and hope.

“If I put the car aside and go work a normal job, then a few months later the Egyptian government will come and confiscate the car if I didn’t pay the taxes,” he says.

“God help us, what are we supposed to do?”

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