Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan: An Overview

Palestinian refugees from Syria started fleeing to Jordan as early as March 2011, when the conflict reached the city of Dar’a, six kilometers from the Jordanian border.[1] The history of Jordanian-Palestinian relations seems to be behind the restrictive policies toward Palestinian refugees from Syria, officially announced by the Jordanian government in January 2013, but in practice since 2012.[2] What was called by Nikita Malik as the “Black September complex” – i.e., “[m]emories of the 1970 Black September civil war between the Jordanian government and Palestinian refugee militias” – “make Jordanian authorities wary of any political activities among the Syrian refugees”,[3] including Palestinian refugees from Syria. At the same time, the fear of being taken as the “alternative land” for Palestinians appears in official justifications of such policies: Jordanian authorities told Amnesty International in June 2013 that they do not wish to harm Palestinians’ ‘right of return’” and “that Israel should bear responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees”.[4]

Prior to April 2012, Jordanian authorities had allowed at least 1,300 Palestinian refugees from Syria in the country under the same procedures applied to Syrian refugees.[5] However, in April 2012 Jordan adopted a no-entry policy that has subjected hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Syria to refoulement – i.e., returned at the border – since May 2012, out of which around two-thirds are women and children,[6] and with over one-third of the cases occurring between January and March 2014.[7] Jordanian restrictive policy applies not only to Palestinians with Syrian documents, but also to Palestinians who were living in Syria with Jordanian identification papers – that is, descendants of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin, “some of whom fled to Syria in 1970-71 following the Black September”.[8]

 

In addition, dozens of Palestinian refugees from Syria have been forcibly returned to Syria from Jordanian soil. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported cases of Palestinians being returned to Syria by force and at gunpoint. Even Palestinians who hold Jordanian citizenship and entered the country legally – which compose 51% of Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with UNRWA Jordan – still face risks of confiscation of documents and withdrawal of nationality,[9] as happened to the members of four families interviewed by Human Rights Watch.[10] As reported by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) and MapAction, there has been a significant increase in the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria being forcibly returned to Syria in early 2014, with over 100 cases since 2013.[11]

The Jordanian restrictive policy toward Palestinian refugees from Syria has the effect of separating families. Many refugees interviewed by Amnesty International said “they had family members stuck inside Syria who were unable to enter Jordan to be with [them, because of] their Palestinian identity”.[12] As one Palestinian man from Syria told the organization, his two sons were denied entry “on account of their Palestinian identity” and are now missing, possibly dead.[13]

UNRWA and partner agencies continue to engage Jordanian authorities on refoulement, urging the government to grant temporary access and protection to Palestinians fleeing the Syrian conflict, while appealing the international community to increase its assistance to the Kingdom.[14]

Despite the ban on their entry, Palestinian refugees from Syria continue to enter Jordan through unofficial border crossings and relying on smugglers,[15] thus remaining in the country illegally. Even though UNRWA has no capacity to monitor movements at the border and, most importantly, Palestinian refugees from Syria are not required to report their entry points when recording with the agency,[16] their illegal status in the country seems to affect their seeking for assistance. Many Palestinian refugees from Syria are believed to be living in hiding for fear of being arrested or returned to Syria and generally they “do not come forward for assistance until several months after their arrival, when they have exhausted their resources and coping mechanisms”.[17] Indeed, the majority of Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with UNRWA in 2014 reported having entered the country in 2013 and 2012, indicating the gap between their entry and their seeking UNRWA’s support.[18]

Moreover, the undocumented status of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan impacts the protection they enjoy in the country. Human Rights Watch reported that two Palestinians refrained themselves to “seek protection or redress for abuses ranging from economic exploitation to street harassment” precisely because of their illegal status.[19] For example, the illegal status of some Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan renders registering births and marriages impossible.

Syrian refugees who cross into Jordan through irregular channels are temporarily detained until “they establish their identity, pass security screening, and a Jordanian national steps forward to act as a guarantor”. In contrast, Palestinian refugees from Syria, who were initially also released under the guarantor policy, began to be excluded from such policy by mid-April 2012, without being given any explanations by Jordanian authorities.[20]

Cyber City

Since April 2012, all Palestinian refugees from Syria who enter the country illegally started being transferred to Cyber City[21], a “closed facility near the border where their movements are severely restricted”[22], also taken as a “refugee camp”[23]. Cyber City now houses approximately 190 Palestinians,[24] while the remaining 99% Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan live in host communities, typically in rented apartments.[25]

Although refugee camps usually restrict freedom of movement, Syrians have the option of leaving the camp if “bailed out” by a Jordanian, such as in Zaatari refugee camp, for example.[26] This possibility also exists in Cyber City, but only for Syrian refugees. Since April 2012, Palestinians refugees from Syria are not permitted to “bail out” to live in host communities, and, thus, remain confined “to the one six-story building in which they live and its immediate vicinity”, in conditions that “amount to detention”.[27] Other than short periods of leave, during which Palestinians can visit their family members in Jordanian cities, Palestinian refugees from Syria can only leave Cyber City to return to Syria.[28]

Another issue that afflicts Palestinian refugees from Syria in Cyber City is the separation of their families. In addition to families who got divided between Syria and Jordan, due to Jordanian restrictions at the border, as mentioned above, several Palestinian refugees from Syria from Cyber City told Amnesty International they had “non-Palestinian family members living as refugees elsewhere in Jordan” whom they were not allowed to visit or to go live with.[29] UNRWA continues to pay regular visits to monitor and respond to the protection needs of such vulnerable population as well as to advocate for humanitarian bailout for Palestinian refugees from Syria residents in Cyber City, especially for family reunification.[30]

Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention. However, the country is still bound by international customary and the principle of non-refoulement, also present in the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), all to which Jordan is a state party.[31]

The discriminatory policies adopted by Jordan toward Palestinian refugees from Syria violate the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), to which the country is also party. Moreover, the arbitrary detention of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Cyber City violates Jordan’s international obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[32]

Although the rights situation of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan is very similar to the one Palestinian refugees from Syria face in Lebanon, the issue seems to lack a strategic response from the UN, given that there is no mention of Palestinian refugees in the Jordan section of the United Nations 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan.[33] Consequently, UNRWA is largely left alone in providing Palestinian refugees from Syria with humanitarian assistance as well as education and health services.[34]


[1] Erakat, “Palestinian Refugees and the Syrian Uprising: Filling the Protection Gap During Secondary Forced Displacement,” 33.

[2] For early accounts on the issue, see Human Rights Watch, “Jordan: Bias at the Syrian Border,” July 4, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/04/jordan-bias-syrian-border.Ibid.; Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, October 31, 2013, 10, http://www.amnesty.org/fr/library/asset/MDE16/003/2013/en/c29bdf87-a4e5-40ff-b65b-df88005298b5/mde160032013en.pdf.

[3] Nikita Malik, “Syria’s Spillover Effect on Jordan,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed July 10, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54509.

[4] Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, 10.

[5] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome: Jordan’s Treatment of Palestinians Escaping Syria, August 2014, 12, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/jordan0814_ForUPload_0.pdf.

[6] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office,” July 13, 2014.

[7] ACAPS and MapAction, Quarterly Regional Analysis for Syria (RAS) Report, Part II - Host Countries, July 2014, 22.

[8] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 13.Such cases have been reported by Human Rights Watch.

[9] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office.”

[10] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 22–25, 29–30.

[11] ACAPS and MapAction, Quarterly Regional Analysis for Syria (RAS) Report, Part II - Host Countries, April 2014, 15.

[12] Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, 20.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office.”

[15] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 15.Human Rights Watch as also documented how Palestinians circumvent Jordan’s ban on their entry. Ibid., 15–17.

[16] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office.”

[17] ACAPS and MapAction, Quarterly Regional Analysis for Syria (RAS) Report, Part II - Host Countries, April 2014, 18.

[18] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office.”

[19] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 26–28.

[20] Human Rights Watch, “Jordan: Bias at the Syrian Border.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] UNRWA, Syria Crisis Response Annual Report - 2013, 11.

[23] UNHCR, “Jordan - Irbid Governorate - Cyber City Refugee Camp,” Syria Regional Refugee Response - Inter-Agency Information Sharing Portal, accessed July 11, 2014, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/settlement.php?id=208&country=107&region=74.

[24] Together with about 200 Syrian refugees (UNRWA, Syria Regional Crisis Response: January-December 2014 – Mid-Year Review, 22.).

[25] UNRWA, Syria Crisis Response Annual Report - 2013, 11.

[26] Ursula Lindsey, “The Zaatari Refugee Camp,” The Arabist, April 2, 2013, http://arabist.net/blog/2013/4/2/the-zaatari-refugee-camp.html.

[27] Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, 20; see also Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 12.

[28] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 18.

[29] Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, 20–21.

[30] “Questionnaire Answered Collaboratively by Members of UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office.”

[31] Human Rights Watch, “Jordan: Obama Should Press King on Asylum Seeker Pushbacks.”

[32] Amnesty International, Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan, 20.

[33] Mig, 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan, December 16, 2013.

[34] Human Rights Watch, Not Welcome, 26.