Protests in Jordanian border city over customs changes

Amman says crackdown on smuggling is about more than duty-free cigarettes

A View of the city of al Ramtha, Jordan, taken on July 06, 2012. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
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Protesters in the Jordanian border town of Ramtha set fire to government vehicles late on Saturday night as unrest continued over new government customs fees and restrictions on goods entering the country.

There had been an initial agreement between the government, the local community and protesters to “suspend” demonstrations on Saturday afternoon.

But the protests went on later in the evening, with demonstrators setting alight a police armoured vehicle and three civil defence department vehicles.

Authorities also report that two members of Jordan’s civil defence were slightly injured in the clashes, which come 14 months after protests over taxes brought down the previous government.

The protests are over sweeping government regulations introduced on Thursday imposing high customs fees on incoming goods, challenging smuggling and new restrictions on goods Jordanians or foreigners can carry into the kingdom.

Protesters particularly object to a regulation limiting any citizen or foreigner to carrying a single carton of duty-free cigarettes into the kingdom from any airport or border crossing.

The Jordanian government insists more is at stake than just government revenue. The new regulations on smuggling are for citizens’ safety, they say.

The duty-free cigarette regulation, the government says, is part of measures designed to clamp down on smuggling in the northern region and secure the kingdom’s borders.

“This issue isn’t simply about cigarettes, it is about smuggling of weapons and guns that is hurting our society and hurting Ramtha,” a Jordanian government source said.

“With these steps we are trying to protect our borders, our economy and our society.”

Ramtha, a border town of 160,000 about 90 kilometres north of Amman that historically thrives on cross-border trade with nearby Syria, is home to 450 families who rely on ferrying passengers and goods across the border.

Former customs and government officials conspired to smuggle in thousands of fake-brand cigarettes in a high-profile case before the courts thought to have cost the Jordan treasury $200 million (Dh734.6m).

Ramtha, and other parts of Jordan’s 370-kilometre border with Syria, have become hotspots for the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and counterfeit goods into the kingdom.

According to security sources, smuggling attempts of arms and drugs have increased “exponentially” over the past year, about the same time that the Syrian regime extended its control over its southern border.

Ramtha has been arguably the Jordanian town hardest hit by the Syrian war.

The flood of Syrian refugees into the northern city led many Syrians, subsidised by assistance from various aid groups, to price Jordanians out of many sectors including services, construction, agriculture and the production of traditional clothes and food.

The reopening of the Jordan-Syria border in October 2018 did little to revitalise the town, locals say, as security restrictions stop many young men Ramtha from travelling to Syria to take part in their traditional trade as interstate taxi and truck drivers.

Residents of the town are calling on the government to let them legally carry other goods across the border, such as food products and other goods from Syria, and ease restrictions to allow young men to work on the Jordan-Syria route.

“We realise that Ramtha struggled with the Syrian crisis for eight years and we realise they face many problems there with poverty and unemployment, but that doesn’t mean that the government won’t enforce the law,” the government source said.

The new wave of customs fees and taxes comes as the government struggles with a drop in revenue amid a debt crisis.

Despite imposing controversial hikes in income and fuel taxes, the government’s tax revenues went down in the first six months of the year, with the treasury collecting 2.17 billion dinars through June 2019, compared to 2.25bn dinars in the first half of 2018.

This comes as the government battles with public debt levels at 95 per cent of GDP.

Amman believes that a large portion of the lost revenue is due to untaxed online shopping, the carrying of goods from abroad and smuggling.

The rapid rise in smuggled goods at Jordan’s ports and borders reportedly cost the Jordanian government an additional 130 million dinars in the first seven months of 2019, compared to the same period last year.

As part of its measures, the government imposed a new customs regime on Thursday, requiring all foreigners and Jordanians receiving any package or carrying goods into the country to declare customs online and pay fees on each item from a minimum of 5 dinars up to 50 to 100 dinars an item.

Failure to declare ahead of time will mean more fines.

The new regulations also limited citizens and residents to bringing in a total of 400 dinars worth of goods into the country each year.

As of Sunday, the online Jordan Customs system was still experiencing technical flaws and prevented all foreigners and some Jordanians from properly registering to declare incoming shipments, resulting in compounded fines on hundreds of parcels.

Within hours of the decision, CashBasha, one of Jordan’s oldest online retailers, announced it was shutting down due to the loss of a “progressive, fair, competitive and inclusive business and technology environment".

“These alterations will deny CashBasha and other companies to continue to provide a differentiated service in our beloved country,” it posted on its website.

Despite raising taxes and fees on e-commerce and imported goods, citizens point out that the Jordanian government has not reduced customs and taxes on local importers such as apparel sellers.

They face a 50 per cent tax and customs on all goods imported into Jordan, even used and flawed "overstock" items.

Late last year, the government also cancelled a free trade agreement with Turkey, which allowed Jordanians to buy affordable Turkish clothes and electronics, a change that drove many Jordanians to buy Turkish and European goods directly through the post.

Jordanians express frustration at paying high prices on the local market and for online shopping at a time when their income tax, electricity bills and rents have been rising.