Syria war refugees allowed in Jordan, except if they’re Palestinian

A child in Yarmouk refugee camp, April 2014. (UNRWA)

Even though they are fleeing the same violence, Jordan is discriminating in its treatment of people escaping the Syria war depending on their nationality.

A report by Human Rights Watch released this week finds that Jordan’s practices of refusing entry and forcibly deporting Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria constitutes a “clear breach of its international obligations.”

This is in contrast to its treatment of Syrian nationals, “upon whom Jordan has not placed any formal entry restrictions,” according to the report, titled “Not Welcome: Jordan’s Treatment of Palestinians Escaping Syria.”

More than half a million Syrians have fled to Jordan since the beginning of the crisis in 2011.

There were approximately 520,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria before the outbreak of the violence, “some living in refugee camps and others in Syrian towns and cities, where they enjoyed many of the same rights as Syrian citizens, including access to government services,” Human Rights Watch observes.

Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and their descendants. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.

Banning and deportation

“Jordan has officially banned entry to Palestinians from Syria since January 2013 and has forcibly deported over 100 who managed to enter the country since mid-2012, including women and children,” Human Rights Watch states.

“Jordan’s uncompromising treatment of Palestinians fleeing Syria contrasts with its treatment of Syrian nationals,” Human Rights Watch adds, “at least 607,000 of whom have been accepted into the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.”

A Jordanian official admitted to Human Rights Watch that the discriminatory non-admittance policy imposed on Palestinians fleeing Syria is aimed to maintain the demographic balance of the kingdom, half the population of which is believed to be of Palestinian origin.

Fayez Tarawneh, head of the royal court and former prime minister, told Human Rights Watch that “he doubted that Jordan would be able legally to deport the Palestinians — a stateless group — to Syria once the conflict there has concluded if they were allowed refuge in Jordan.”

Human Rights Watch’s report states that in declaring the non-admittance policy:

“Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour argued that Palestinians from Syria should be allowed to return to their places of origin in Israel and Palestine, and that ‘Jordan is not a place to solve Israel’s problems.’ He said, ‘Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision to not allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents … They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”

Jordan’s non-entry policy for Palestinians may also be tied to the 1970-71 Black September confrontation between Palestinian guerrilla fighters and the Jordanian army, Human Rights Watch’s report suggests.

“Jordan’s harsh treatment of Palestinians fleeing Syria also extends to Palestinian residents of Syria who are actually Jordanian citizens or descendants of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin,” the report notes.

“Those who were involved in Black September would now be at least in their 60s, if not older, and their children and grandchildren should not be held accountable for acts that may have been committed by their parents or grandparents more than forty years ago,” Human Rights Watch states.

Citizenship revoked

Human Rights Watch has documented the stripping of ten Palestinians from Syria of their Jordanian citizenship: “Jordanian citizens affected by withdrawal of citizenship have learned they had been stripped of their citizenship not from any official notice, but during routine procedures such as renewing a passport or an ID card, or registering a marriage or the birth of a child at Jordan’s Civil Status Department.”

The group adds:

Some Palestinians deported to Syria, especially those stripped of their Jordanian citizenship, return to Syria without any form of valid identification, which renders them unable to cross government or opposition checkpoints, forcing them to remain indefinitely in small border villages without access to humanitarian assistance. Human Rights Watch spoke with two deported Palestinians with no identification currently living in a mosque in a Syrian border town.

Despite Jordan’s restrictions, more than 14,000 Palestinians from Syria have sought services from UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Human Rights Watch notes.

“Only 1,300 of them had entered Jordan lawfully before authorities began the pushbacks of Palestinians at the border,” Human Rights Watch states.

Lacking ability to enter through official border crossings, Palestinians fleeing Syria, some of whom say they endured torture in Syrian government prisons, described to Human Rights Watch the peril they endured circumventing Jordan’s ban on entry.

Shot by soldiers

A 47-year-old Palestinian from Damascus who said he entered Jordan in May 2013 recounted paying a smuggler a fee of $1,060 and was shot in the leg by Jordanian soldiers while attempting to cross the border.

A Palestinian woman from Yarmouk camp near the Syrian capital said that in July 2013, five months after her family entered the country using a smuggler, Jordanian police and plainclothes intelligence stormed their Amman home. Her husband was arrested and deported to Syria after two weeks in detention. He has since claimed asylum in a third country, and the family remains separated.

The family of other Palestinians who were deported from Jordan reported that their relatives were beaten by Jordanian police while in custody.

“In all cases of deportation documented by Human Rights Watch,” the report states, “Jordanian authorities separated Palestinian men from children, wives, parents, or other family members left behind in Jordan, depriving family members of a primary source of income in some cases.”

International aid workers told Human Rights Watch “that they feared an increase in discovery, arrest and deportation of Palestinians, particularly Palestinians posing as Syrians, as a result of Jordan’s introduction of a biometric verification procedure for new refugees arriving from Syria, and reverification of Syrians living in Zaatari camp and in urban communities.”

Undocumented

“As a result of the Jordanian government’s policy, many Palestinians from Syria do not have proper residency papers in Jordan, making them vulnerable to exploitation, arrest, and deportation,” the group adds.

“Undocumented Palestinians from Syria dare not seek protection or redress from the Jordanian government against exploitation or other abuses. They cannot legally live in the official refugee camps established for Syrians, but cannot legally work to earn money for renting housing outside the camps,” the report states.

Approximately 180 Palestinians and 200 Syrians are held in the fenced-off Cyber City facility for refugees, in a remote area of northern Jordan, according to Human Rights Watch. “Other than short periods of leave granted to some Cyber City residents every two to three weeks to visit their family members in Jordanian cities, Palestinians living in Cyber City can only leave the camp to return to Syria,” the group adds.

Human Rights Watch’s 44-page report is based on interviews conducted with members of twelve Palestinian families, more than thirty individuals, who fled Syria for various Jordanian cities, all of whom were affected by Jordan’s restrictions targeting Palestinians.

Staff of humanitarian organizations were also interviewed and their reports surveyed. Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali did not reply to the group’s requests for information on Jordan’s treatment of Palestinians from Syria.

Human Rights Watch calls on Jordanian authorities to “rescind the non-admittance policy for Palestinians refugees from Syria and cease all deportations of Palestinian refugees back to Syria.”

The group adds:

The Jordanian authorities should admit Palestinians from Syria seeking refuge in Jordan at least on a temporary basis and allow them to remain and move freely in Jordan after passing security screening and finding a sponsor. Authorities should also halt arbitrary removal of citizenship from Jordanian citizens or descendants of Jordanian citizens who were living in Syria prior to 2011.

International donors and aid agencies should ensure that relevant agencies provide humanitarian and protection support to Palestinians from Syria on par with services offered to Syrian nationals in Jordan.

Stateless and unwanted

Human Rights Watch remarks in its report that Jordan is, unfortunately, not the only country imposing restrictions on Palestinians from Syria which put them at grave risk.

Earlier this year, the group reported that the Lebanese government had denied dozens of Palestinian refugees entry from Syria, deporting them back to the war-torn country.

Lebanon hosts approximately one million Syrian refugees, according the UN refugee agency UNHCR. As of July, there were approximately 50,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon.

Lebanon has broken promises to not deport Palestinians fleeing Syria.

Research by Amnesty International indicates “evidence of a policy to deny Palestinian refugees from Syria entry into Lebanon altogether — regardless of whether they meet the new conditions of entry,” according to Mutawalli Abou Nasser reporting for the Inter Press Service.

The stateless Palestinians of Syria find few doors open to them.

The new Human Rights Watch report states: “Of Syria’s neighbors, only Turkey allows Palestinians to freely enter and has reportedly agreed to issue residency permits that will allow them to live, work and study legally in the country. By April 2014 at least 1,600 Palestinians had entered Turkey and registered with UNHCR.”

The group adds:

Due to regional pushbacks and inability to legally reside in most surrounding countries, many Palestinians from Syria are taking risks to escape the violence, including by attempting to smuggle themselves to Europe by land or sea. In Egypt, where an estimated 6,000 Palestinians from Syria have sought refuge, Palestinians and Syrians must acquire a pre-approved visa to enter the country.
By late 2013 the government had detained at least 400 Palestinians from Syria caught trying to migrate to Europe on smugglers’ boats. Palestinians interviewed by Human Rights Watch at police stations said that Egyptian authorities told them that their only alternative to indefinite detention in Egypt was to go to Lebanon or return to war-torn Syria.

Palestinians in Egypt are especially vulnerable because Egyptian policy prevents them from seeking protection from UNHCR, and Egypt is outside UNRWA’s fields of operation.

Overshadowed this summer by Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus is ongoing as armed fighting interrupts aid operations there. More than 18,000 civilians remain trapped in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian population center in Syria, according to UNRWA.

Before the armed conflict, nearly 150,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA resided in Yarmouk, as well as thousands of Syrian nationals.

Dozens died of starvation in the camp after Syrian government forces tightened the siege on Yarmouk in July 2013.

Approximately 270,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced by the ongoing violence, says UNRWA.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.