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FEATURE-Forced back to Syria? Jordan's unregistered refugees fear deportation

by Sally Hayden | @sallyhayd | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 00:01 GMT

A 12-year-old illegal Syrian refugee and child labourer stands in his mother's apartment in a poor area of Amman, Jordan on January 19, 2017. Photo by Sally Hayden/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan have lost their rights to humanitarian aid and risk deportation

By Sally Hayden

AMMAN, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was in the dead of night when Nagham and her three young sons crept out of the Jordanian refugee camp and set off on a long walk that brought them to the capital Amman just as the sun came up.

Having already fled the embattled city of Homs in neighbouring Syria, her children were frightened by the roar of jets flying over the camp.

Nagham, travelling without her husband who was barred from crossing the border with them, was worried by the lack of security and privacy during the month they spent there.

"I finally felt safe," said the 33-year-old mother of her family's night-time trek to the city in April 2015.

Nagham and her children are just some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan who have lost their rights to humanitarian aid and risk deportation because they either left official refugee camps or failed to register with the U.N. refugee agency or the Jordanian authorities.

In the almost two years since she left the camp, Nagham, who does not want to give her real name because she fears being arrested, has barely left her apartment in Amman.

Instead, her three sons – aged 10, 12, and 14 – go out to work as delivery boys in local vegetable shops every day, earning a meagre salary of 3 Jordanian dinars ($4.25) each, barely covering the monthly rent of more than $200.

"I usually don't go out of the house, if I do I never leave the neighbourhood. I tell my children not to speak to many people," said Nagham inside her bare, first-floor flat in a poor area of east Amman traditionally inhabited by Palestinian refugees.

"I always feel like we're targeted because I know we're doing something wrong."

Numbers of new arrivals from Syria dropped off dramatically after Jordan tried to seal the 370-km (230-mile) border in 2013, citing strain on its limited water resources and economy.

The Jordanian government says there are 1.4 million Syrians in the country at the moment, of whom around 633,000 are registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. Many are welcomed by host communities whose family ties straddle the Syrian-Jordanian border.

A UNHCR spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it had no estimate on the numbers of refugees who are unregistered.

If caught without documentation, unregistered Syrian refugees face being returned to camps or being deported back to Syria, say human rights groups.

Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, though has said it operates in according to principles of international law, which include non-refoulement - meaning a refugee may not be forced back to a country if they face persecution.

Officials in three government ministries did not respond to requests from the Thomson Reuters Foundation for comment.


Adam Coogle, Jordan researcher for Human Rights Watch, said he had been tracking deportations since 2014. They took place for a variety of reasons including security concerns, refugees working illegally or suspicion of having committed a crime, he said.

"We hear reports that deportations are ongoing and they probably increased following the attack in Rukban camp in June, 2016," said Coogle, referring to a suicide attack at a Syrian-Jordanian border crossing close to a camp for 50,000 refugees.

Noura, a 31-year-old refugee from Homs said her younger brother was deported after he tried to leave a camp.

"They just put them back over the border," she said. "He's now back in Daraa (Syria), it's very bad," she said. "He was still in high school."

Refugees living in Jordan's cities say they even worry their children could inadvertently betray them to the authorities.

When Syrian children get into arguments with locals the Jordanian parents sometimes threaten to get them deported, or blackmail them for money, said Areej, a 38-year-old woman living in Mafraq, a city 10 miles from the Syrian border.

Several civil society organisations in Jordan are trying to help the undocumented refugees, but mistrust on both sides is hampering the process, said Samar Muhareb, director of Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, which gives legal assistance to refugees.

"I think perception or the fear of deportation are much higher than the realities but unfortunately this is the language used by the host communities," she said.

Donor states have prodded the Jordanian government to relax labor laws to allow thousands of refugees to work legally in industrial parks and businesses near big camps like Zaatari.

Jordan had issued 20,000 work permits by July 2016, and tens of thousands more Syrian refugees are expected to get them in the coming years.

If refugees are unable to live and work legally, they will be forced to take risks, said Matteo Paoltroni, technical advisor to European Commission's humanitarian aid department (ECHO), during an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office in Amman.

ECHO is supporting projects aimed at registering refugees.

"If you keep people in the shade (they) will have to do something to survive," said Paoltroni. "If you are a government body and ... security is one of your biggest problems then you want to know where these people are."

Nagham said she has only received a food coupon once, when a neighbour took pity on her. "It was like a holiday," she said.

But she has no regrets about leaving the refugee camp.

"At least here when we close the door we have our own privacy, we have our own space, we feel safe even if we are illegal. In the camp anyone can come in and do anything." ($1 = 0.7083 Jordanian dinars) (Reporting by Sally Hayden @sallyhayd; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org))

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