Ramtha ‘bahara’ see little respite from border reopening

Cross-border drivers cite hours wait at crossing, ‘unfair competition’ from private cars

A military vehicle patrols Jordan’s northern border with Syria, in Ramtha Governorate.  (Photo: Jordan News)
A military vehicle patrols Jordan’s northern border with Syria, in Ramtha Governorate. (Photo: Jordan News)
AMMAN — While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought havoc to many economic sectors, it constituted yet another blow to one profession that has been hit with consecutive blows over the last years: bahara (Arabic for “sailors”), a group of people who operate on designated routes, ferrying people and goods in licensed cars across the border, and, in the process, bringing in merchandise from the other side to sell domestically at a profit.اضافة اعلان

“The situation is worsening. Since the closure of the borders with Syria things have gotten tough. I used to wake up at dawn, get in my car, head to Syria, collect the merchandise, and come back to sell it at a modest profit,” said Ahmad Salman, a bahar from Ramtha, in an interview with Jordan News

Around 600 bahars in Ramtha Governorate supplied their communities and merchants with cheap goods, which brought down local prices and helped the community mitigate the rising costs of living. 

“Cigarettes, clothes, and vegetables. I usually pick these items from Syria and resell them in Jordan. This helps keep prices low in our communities and provides me with a necessary source of income that my family and I rely on,” said Salman. 

According to Carnegie Middle East Center, “In 2010, border authorities tolerated each driver bringing in seven cartons, each containing 200 cigarettes. With an average of 250 drivers crossing per day, the daily amount would total 1,750 cartons containing 350,000 cigarettes. The daily amount brought from Syria by the bahara would have likely covered more than the Ramtha district’s daily needs of around 294,000 cigarettes.”

Recently, the Ministry of Interior launched a platform to regulate passengers traveling between Amman and Damascus to control the flow of passengers and goods, following months of closure following a COVID-19 outbreak that started at border crossings. However, bahara warn that private cars, unlicensed to travel the same routes, are posing “unfair competition.”

Bahara cars are worth “tens of thousands” because they are licensed as public transportation vehicle, while unlicensed private cars are worth much less than that.     

“The past years have been very tough. We basically had no source of income. After years of conflict and [more than a year] of COVID, now we see private cars worth no more than a couple of thousands competing with us. Owners of these cars don’t care if their vehicles were impounded, they would just leave it there and operate another one,” said Abu Omar, another Ramtha bahar. 

Ramtha is the closest city to the Syrian borders. Before the eruption of the Syrian conflict, it would take a few hours to perform a round trip. Now, some have to wait for days before their car is inspected and allowed in. 

“The borders are not fully functional. The number of customs personnel is minimized and the queues are long,” said Abu Omar. 

Sometimes we are stuck between borders for days all because of the private cars crossing the borders. We need to separate inspections between private and licensed cars.”

Abu Mohammad, who has been a bahar for the past 22 years, said that “during the pandemic, we couldn’t work, we waited patiently to go back to work but I don’t have high hopes. The government is angered with us and the trade will just vanish.”

Since the suspension of the baharas’ trade, first due to the Syrian crisis, and then due to the pandemic, Ramtha has witnessed a deep economic crisis, leading to the closure of over 4,000 shops, according to Carnegie Middle East Center. 

In 2019, the government declared Ramtha a “disaster zone” in terms of economic situation. 

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