Jordan has forcibly returned hundreds of Syrian refugees to their home country in violation of international law, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The international human rights watchdog said that hundreds of refugees were deported in 2012 following a protest at the Zaatari refugee camp, close to the country’s border with Syria. Hundreds more Syrians have been forcibly returned this year, including Syrians of Palestinian origin and those working in the Kingdom without official documentation, according to the human rights group.
“Amnesty is extremely concerned about this trend. While Jordan has made tremendous efforts to accommodate half a million refugees, and is facing pressures as a result, these do not justify such violations of international law,” says Amnesty’s Neil Sammonds, who worked on the report.
As the Syrian crisis has escalated, sending a flood of refugees into Jordan, the political and popular mood here has grown more hostile toward the refugees. The UN has registered more than 550,000 Syrians in Jordan, and they now account for nearly 10 percent of the country’s total population. Schools in the Kingdom are oversubscribed and many employ a double shift system, where Jordanians and Syrians attend classes separately.
Jordan has received more than $750 million in humanitarian aid this year to help meet refugee needs, according to the UN humanitarian agency. But that falls far short of the total it has requested.
A surge in housing costs and a scarcity of jobs in Jordan is now widely blamed on the Syrian influx. Unemployment in the Kingdom remains high, at 14 percent. Earlier this year a group of politicians called for the border to be closed to new arrivals from Syria and the Ministry of Labor recently announced its would deport more than 5,000 Syrians who were working in Jordan without proper documentation.
“Given the variety of circumstances to the deportation, it appears a little ad-hoc. Still, the ministry’s threat to deport those informally working is clearly part of government policy,” said Sammonds.
This proposed deportation would amount to the largest single forced return so far, but small-scale deportations have already occurred this year. Ali, a Syrian refugee who requested that only his first name be used, says he was deported in August, after police raided his apartment in the northern city of Irbid. He had taken a job as a security guard in the city and lived with a group of fellow refugees who were employed as carpenters.
“The police arrived at our apartment at 1 a.m. They arrested us and took us to a building not far away. Then they said they would beat us 200 times if we didn’t go back to Syria. Three of my friends were taken to the border and left with me – the rest of the group were taken to Zaatari because their families are in Jordan,” he said via phone.
Ali wants to re-enter Jordan and is trying raise enough money from friends and family to enable him to pay somebody to get him back across the border.
“I’m stuck near a village very close to the border. I can’t go back into Jordan and I definitely can’t go back into Syria. There are government soldiers in the village so I can’t go there."
The Amnesty report revealed similar accounts of police arresting and deporting Syrians working informally in Irbid, dating back to early in 2013.
“Such deportations amount to refoulement. No one can be returned to Syria at this time, regardless. As we know many refugees work irregularly because applying for a work permit can be complicated, expensive, and requires ID, which many do not have. For the urban population they may be left with no choice but to work irregularly to make ends meet,” said Amnesty’s Sammonds.
Jordan says all returnees have done so voluntarily.
"First, refugees who are sent back are sent after they fill out an official application and they do that voluntarily. Second, refugees who work require a work permit. All refugees who've been deported have been so in accordance with international law," said Minister of Information Mohammad Momani.
"Anyone who is working unofficially is breaking the law. They should acquire a work permit from the authority and after that they can work legally. This applies to Syrian labor, the same as Egyptian labor," said the minister.