Jordan puts the lives of Syrian refugees at risk by forcibly returning them to their country

Jordan puts the lives of Syrian refugees at risk by forcibly returning them to their country
Jordan puts the lives of Syrian refugees at risk by forcibly returning them to their country
الرابط المختصر

-Jordan violates international law and the UNHCR has failed to halt the deportations

-The Ministry of Interior conceals information and took action to expel 103 workers


Once he set foot in the land of Jordan as a refugee in May 2013, he breathed a sigh of relief at his “salvation” from the killing of the war raging in Syria, now for four years. To that thought, however, the Syrian refugee Mohamed had his hopes dashed.

Asylum in Numbers:

-Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan: 625,598

-Syrian refugees currently living in the Zaatari camp (established in the year 2012): 83,848

-Refugees living in the Azraq camp (established in the year 2014): 13,903

-Syrian refugees in the Emirati Jordanian camp: 5,111

-Male refugees: 49.3%

-Female refugees: 50.7%

-Number of Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with UNHCR: 14,500

*Source: The High Commission of Refugee Affairs


With the escalation of the war in Syria, Mohamed’s sister fled to Jordan in early October 2014, and settled in the Azraq refugee camp. Mohamed, who was living in Ruseifa, a city east of Amman, set out to visit her on the fourth day Eid al-Adha in 2014.


As soon as he entered the gates of the camp he was asked by the public security men to display his security sponsorship allowing him to visit. He apologized to them for not carrying it with him and he displayed the special job card created for the Syrian diaspora, with the name of the Ruseifa security office fixed upon it in sponsorship.


The security men did not permit him to procure his sponsorship, despite his repeated appeals. They held him captive in the security center at the Azraq camp until they were able to transfer him the next morning to Raba’a al-Sarhan reception centre for refugees, seven kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border. There, the security man forced Mohamed to return to Syria. He ascended the steps of the “deportations” bus, which forcibly threw him out into the open at the border. Although he was covered under the patronage and protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from forcible return to Syria where his life and freedom were threatened, that was his last Eid al-Adha.


It was not even Mohamed’s tenth day in the border village shared between Syria and Jordan when a shell fell outside of the village mosque which sustained the damage, ending his life, leaving behind a grieving wife and seven children.


His eldest son Abed said, “We only have God to trust. It was an injustice what happened to my father. He wasn’t leaving the home or doing anything else wrong, and yet he was martyred there.”


The investigators looked into the cases of 10 Syrian refugees, similar to Mohamed, who were deported to their country at the hands of the Jordanian security services and the Ministry of the Interior between September 2014 and April 2015, thereby flouting the interventions of UNHCR.


“Administrative” deportation decisions are implemented immediately without informing the deportees of their right to appeal against this decision to the Supreme Court of Justice.


The results of this investigation revealed that the security services and directory of refugee affairs expelled 10 individual refugees, including expulsion to Syria, where they risked death, hunger and disease and were forced to leave behind their families in a strange land.


Thus, these actions were in contradiction with the Jordan Convention against Torture, officially ratified by the government in 2006, which forbids the deportation or return of a person to another state where his life is at risk of torture. Dr. Ayman Halaseh, a professor of International Law and Human Rights at Isra University, confirmed this.


According to Halaseh, “the principle of non-refoulement customarily refers to states where there is war. All countries, whether bound by it through the relevant agreements signed or not signed, have this obligation from an international standpoint. This obligation, now impacting Jordan, comes from international customs and the International Convention against Torture of 1984, and has been validated by Jordan according to constitutional provisions.”


Failure to respect the principle of non-refoulement and the deportation of any person seeking asylum in Jordan is contrary to the memorandum of understanding signed between the government and the office of the UNHCR, as amended in 2014, according to Halaseh.


The UNHCR failed to protect people under its care from forcible return to their countries, where they faced threats to their lives and freedoms. Amid conflicting figures, the Ministry of Interior--responsible for public security and the commissioner for Syrian refugees--abstained from providing information on this subject, while the Ministry of Labor talked about the expulsion of 103 Syrians between the years 2011 and 2014 as a result of labor law violations, without specifying whether their names had been included in the list of refugees.


The investigators attempted to gain access to their names and confirm whether they were registered with the UNHCR, but the ministry rejected this request under the pretext of privacy.


UN organizations, Human Rights Watch, and three international non-governmental organizations (Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Action Against Hunger) complained in their reports that the Jordanian authorities expelled Syrian refugees back to Syria. The legal reasons given for carrying out these returns were violations of labor laws and potential for security breaches.



The Oppressed were not Protected


In two reports issued in late 2014, the Human Rights Watch office in Amman documented the forcible deportation by the Jordanian authorities of 30 Syrian refugees, classified as vulnerable deportees, back to their country, according to Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for the organization.


These deportees included 12 who were wounded or injured, who were receiving treatment at a rehabilitation center in the city of Ramtha, steps away from her Syrian twin sister city of Daraa, about 90 kilometers north of Amman. The deportees also included unaccompanied children.


The report states that all evictees were registered with the UNHCR.


“We focussed our work on vulnerable people such as children and the wounded because for us as an organization it was difficult to think of a reason that children and the wounded could pose a security problem. I mean some of them were paralyzed and unable to walk. Therefore, it is necessary for us to know the real answer for throwing them back to Syria, given the fact that in some other cases the government says they threaten the security of the country,” said Coogle.



The Family of Umm Rasoul


Once the Syrian refugee Umm Rasoul was settled with her innocent children, until the security forces deported her husband to Syrian without cause, she said. The once united family disbanded: the father under fire, the mother lying under perpetual fever and fatigue, and five children, the oldest of whom was still quite young.


“They didn’t care about his situation. They prevented him from seeing his daughter for even an hour,” Umm Rasoul recalled. “Everything has become different. The cost of living, the children’s schooling, and of course the new baby. This is all our responsibility.”



Expulsion Means Death


The expelled Syrian refugee Abu Rasoul conveyed to us in his testimony and in pictures sent by telephone from Syria, “Three Syrian refugees have died there, after their expulsion by the Jordanian authorities, at the end of October 2014.” The investigators were not permitted to confirm their names or when they were expelled from Jordan, and the communication with that source was interrupted due to poor communication lines.


With regard to the gravity of deporting Syrian refugees back to their country, military expert and retired Major General Mamoun Abu Nuwar said, “Syria does not have safety in it. Syria has massacres in it. God appointed unto them truly unspeakable things: hunger, siege, chemicals, and the worst kinds of weapons used.”


The battle in Syria does not stop at the Syria-Jordanian border; In early April, the Syrian opposition took control of the shared border crossing with Jordan, through which two Syrian refugees were expelled back to their country. The fighting on the southern front is growing in ferocity along the Syrian border, according to Abu Nuwar.


After three attempts to obtain comment, the UNHCR sent to the authors of this investigation via email the curt phrase: “I do not encourage refugees to return voluntarily to Syria, due to the seriousness of the situation there.”



The Deportations are on the Rise


While we sat in the office of the lawyer Hazem al-Shakhatra, in the city of Irbid, 90 kilometers to the north of Amman, where 250,000 Syrians live, a syrian refugee cried about the Jordanian authorities who were preparing to expel her only son to Syria, imploring him to help her.


The lawyer, al-Shakhatra, who provides legal assistance to Syrian refugees in Irbid, 20 km from the Jordanian-Syrian border, documented the expulsion of 22 Syrian refugees back to their country since early 2015.


Al-Shakhatra feared that the problem of deporting refugees could turn into a “phenomenon and procedure,” nothing that, “the size of the problem grows and is now surfacing, day after day. Every day cases and contacts come to me.”


He said, “We have real names and concrete numbers, and cases, but unfortunately there are no accurate figures on the size of the problem. I am as a person smothered by these numbers, and the expectations for them double when one works in the same field, an organization or a human rights center. There are other refugees who did not arrive at all and who were quietly returned.”


“The number of deportations increased greatly in 2014, but they did not touch the substantial increase in the recent period,” according to the estimates of the Human Rights Watch representative Adam Coogle.



Limited Breakthroughs


The lawyer al-Shakhatra succeeded in protecting six refugees from expulsion to Syria. Of the 28 cases, he succeeded in providing a lifeline against violations threatening their lives for 21% of them.


Six cases had their status corrected and were transferred over to the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees, according to al-Shakhatra.


At the moment of hearing about the possibility of expulsion of refugees, Coogle says it is necessary to address “the Commission (UNHCR) or the Red Cross, to negotiate with the government directly.”


According to Coogle, “In some cases, they succeed in preventing deportation. In other cases, unfortunately, they do not succeed.”


In the Commission’s written response to the authors of this investigation, they said, “Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it defended thousands of refugees to prevent forcible deportation, and succeeded in many cases.” Yet, they changed course by saying, “Many of the cases do not come to its attention and therefore it cannot prevent the deportation.”

Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruelties: No state or party may return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be at risk of torture.


The commission refuses to disclose any numbers or statistics on forced repatriation on the basis of the Jordanian authorities having jurisdiction.



Contrary to International Law


“These forcible returns [carried out by the Jordanian authorities] violate the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, which forbids governments from returning people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened,” according to the Human Rights Watch report issued on the December 8, 2014.

All Syrian refugees registered in Jordan carry a card issued by UNHCR: “As an asylum seeker, he is one of the persons covered under the patronage of the UNHCR office, and must be protected from forcible return to his country where he claims he is facing a threat to his life or his freedom.”



The Elimination Criterion


In each of the ten cases we documented, the courts and the judiciary did not review any of the expelled refugees to eliminate the decisions. According to Dr. Ayman Halaseh, the only way is to present a case to the Supreme Court of Justice to challenge the expulsion decision, as issued by the Interior Minister or the Minister of Labor.


The organizers of the eviction process in the directory of refugee affairs or security agencies did not hear any of the expelled refugees’ legal rights to object or appeal their expulsion decisions, whether to judicial or administrative bodies.


“I have not so far dealt with any removal of Syrian judicial decisions. All cases are relegated to the administrative decision issued by the Department of Refugee Affairs, or police departments in their home areas,” said the lawyer Hazem al-Shakhatra.


“Any person issued an expulsion decision should be given the right and the opportunity to appeal this decision, from the measure of the law, and this means postponing the deportation process in order to allow the person facing deportation to appeal before the competent court, present his defense and whether he has concerns or evidence of persecution and torture. Ultimately the court weighs the evidence and decides,” said the professor of international law Dr. Ayman Halaseh.


In each of the cases that the preparers of this investigation reviewed, the investigators confirmed that the issuers of the administrative decisions did not inform the deportees of their right to appeal their expulsion decisions before the Supreme Court of Justice.



The Interior Withholds Information


In mid-February 2015, we sent the Ministry of Interior a request for information, in accordance with the law guaranteeing the right of access to information No. 47 for the year 2007, which included 14 questions. The question inquired about the number of Syrian refugees who were forcibly deported to Syria, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the legal and legislative authority for those, and whether the Ministry of Interior is responsible for the deportation decisions.


The legal period, amounting to 30 days, expired without our receiving any answer, despite more than a dozen attempts to contact the media spokesman for the ministry, Dr. Ziad al-Zoubi, and the Director of Syrian Refugee Affairs, Brigadier General Waddah al-Hmoud.


We sent letters asking for an interview with then-Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali, and others asking for an interview with the Director of Syrian Refugee Affairs, General Waddah al-Hmoud, but without results.


The authors of this investigation also sought out the Director of the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Interior, Mutaz Abu Jaber, as perhaps the simplest way to obtain answers. All of our attempts failed.



Confidentiality of Information


In response to the Ministry of Interior’s refusal to grant information, we filed a grievance with the Board of Information, the governmental institution headed by the Council and Minister of Culture, within the legal period.


However, the board decided by a majority of its members--Eight representing the government, including the Secretary General of the Ministry of Interior--that the required data was “confidential and classified within the data which prevents the disclosure.” So, the Council decided to reject the requested material.



Al-Nasour Denies


On the sidelines of the press conference held on May 11, 2015 to announce the development plan Jordan 2025, the investigators publicly informed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nasour of their investigation into the 10 cases of refugees expelled by the Jordanian authorities.


Prime Minister al-Nasour rushed to deny that Jordan may be involved in the deportation of Syrian refugees from the land.


Al-Nasour returned in that same conference to the allegations that Jordan had expelled 10 refugees because they had entered Jordanian territory through ways that were not officially coordinated, “There are more than 1.4 million refugees and you ask about 10.”


“These are our brothers and our families, and it is a grave mistake to hurt them or antagonize them. God forbids this as incompatible with religion, ethics, Arabism, nationalism, and our interests,” said al-Nasour.


The lawyer Hazem al-Shakhatra, on the reasons for expelling refugees, said they include “labor violations, laboring without work permits, attempts to escape from the camps without bail, entering Jordanian territory with forged papers, committing a crime or posing a security threat.” He complained that, “Any minor offense committed by a refugee may subject him to deportation. Unfortunately, there are no clear or fair standards on this matter. Personal standards vary from one person to another.”



Varied Yet One-Dimensional Reasons


Seven to 10 refugees documented cases of expulsion. Their families did not learn the reasons for their deportation.


The refugee Mansour and his wife were deported after she gave birth in Jordan due to the way his wife had entered the country. She entered Jordanian territory under the name of his former wife who had died in Syria. His new marriage was undocumented in Syria. Therefore, the Jordanian authorities considered this a fraud and required deportation, according to the mother of Mansour, a resident in Sahab.


The motive behind the expulsion in a third case, that of the refugee Salem, was because of his working without the permits allowing him to do so. The latter was not able to show security clearance for being outside of the Zaatari refugee camp, during his visit to his sister on the fourth day of Eid al-Adha.



103 Deportation Decisions


In a written response to the questions of the authors of this investigation, the Ministry of Labor indicated that its minister has issued 103 deportation decisions against Syrian workers from 2011, the start date of the Syrian Crisis, until 2014 for violations of labor laws.


While the exact number of Syrian workers in violation of the labor laws during that period was 23,500 Syrian workers, the Ministry of Labor, issued deportation decisions given the difficult security situation in Syria, according to the Secretary General of the Ministry of Labour, Hamada Abu Nijmeh.


According to the lawyer Hazem al-Shakhatra, the majority of deportation cases which he dealt with were related to work irregularities. Nine of the 22 expulsion cases al-Shakhatra dealt with were due to working without permits.


It was not possible for the investigative team to determine, despite repeated attempts, whether the deported Syrian workers included Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR.


However, Human Rights Watch published in its report that nine refugees told them that the police expelled them, while in possession of valid security and asylum identities, because of their working without permits.


Media spokesman for the government, Dr. Mohammad al-Momani, commented to the authors of this investigation, on the sidelines of the Jordan 2025 press conference on May 11, 2015: “The Ministry of Labour has laws that regulate the labor market. It is against the law to carry out labor without acquiring the necessary permits applied by the Ministry of Labour. It is the right of a sovereign state to apply its laws on all of its territory. Dealing with this matter is in accordance with the provisions of various international laws and regulations.”



The UNHCR is Reluctant


For each of the 10 cases in which we documented deportations, the deportees reached out to contacts within UNHCR in order to save them from deportation. However, the promised solutions to the problems did not result in resolution of the situations, according to what was confirmed by relatives of the deportees in individual interviews.


Abed, the son of the Syrian refugee Mohamed who was killed in Syria after being expelled from Jordan, said, “I told the Commission’s lawyer at the time we learned that the government structure was returning my father to Syria and followed up directly with him through a registered phone call.”


-My father was arrested in the Azraq camp

-However when they transferred him to Zaatari, we compromised so there was nothing else done after this

-My father has reached Zaatari

-Two hours from now and they will release him

-My father has been transferred to the Raba’a al-Sarhan centre

-This is not possible. I will look at my procedures, but this matter is impossible

-My father is now in Syria

-I swear by God that nothing can be done about this


We presented this story to the UNHCR representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, because it is the charge of his office to secure international protection for refugees and to protect them from persecution. Harper responded, with signs of surprise on his face, “We need to check in on this case--because you’ve just given it to me now--so, I don’t have any other information on it.”


“We have been engaged in seeking to prevent thousands of people from being returned,” Harper stated. “In the end, if the government believes there is a security concern with some refugees, it is very difficult for us to intervene successfully.”



Security Concerns


“The government will state that it has security interests as a priority. We understand the government’s legitimate security concerns. However, if people are at risk to their lives or their freedom upon their return, then we would obviously be involved in that,” said Harper, acknowledging Jordan’s difficult security environment.


Representative for Human Rights Watch, Adam Coogle, said for his part, “The government expels refugees who come through illegal smuggling, or who have falsified papers, for reasons of security and border control, and any refugees coming to Jordan illegally are made a clear example of with their deportation. This is a breach of the Jordanian state’s international obligations.”


Hazem al-Shakhatra said, “Any refugee who commits a crime of security, ethics, or a labor violation, must be forwarded to the competent courts and punished there. Otherwise, the government will be breaking both Jordanian law and international law.”


“The decision of deportation is a serious decision, am I a human ladder to the gallows?” Al-Shakhatra wondered.


After the diaspora of her family and the false nature of the supposed protection, Umm Rasoul joined her husband exiled in Syria, favoring going to the hell of war voluntarily. To forcibly expel is to inflict death.



*This investigation was prepared by the investigative journalism unit for Radio al-Balad and AmmanNet with support from the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism network.



The Arabic of this investigative report appeared on June 14, 2015

Translated by Julia Norris
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