By Hazim al-Hamwi and Musab Shawabkeh
Amman, (Radio Balad), June 2015 – After he set foot in Jordan as a refugee in May 2013, he breathed a sigh of relief. Mohamed, a Syrian national, thought he was saved from the killing of the war raging in Syria since 2011. But his hopes were soon dashed.
Asylum in Numbers:
-Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan: 625,598
-Syrian refugees currently living in the Za’atari camp established in 2012): 83,848
-Refugees living in the Azraq camp (established in 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 UNHCR
With the escalation of war in Syria, Mohamed’s sister fled to Jordan in October 2014. She settled in the Azraq refugee camp. Mohamed, who was living in Russeifa, a city east of Amman, set out to visit her on the fourth day of the Eid al-Adha (Muslim feast) in 2014.
As soon as he entered the camp’s gates he was asked by the police men to show his security-approved sponsorship card allowing him to visit. He apologized for not carrying it with him and displayed a “special job card” created for Syrian refugees in Jordan and bearing the name of the Russeifa police station .
The security men did not allow him to return to Russeifa to get his sponsorship despite his repeated appeals. They held him captive at 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 took him to the border. This took place despite the fact that he was covered under the “patronage and protection” of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was forced to return to Syria, where his life and freedom were threatened. It was Mohamed’s last Eid al-Adha feast.
He was killed when a shell fell outside the mosque near a town straddling the Jordan-Syria border, leaving behind a grieving wife and seven children.
His eldest son Abed said: “We only have God to trust. What happened to my father was total injustice”.
Both investigative reporters looked at the cases of 10 Syrian refugees who were deported from Jordan like Mohamed by the Jordanian security services and the Ministry of Interior between September 2014 and April 2015 despite intervention by UNHCR.
“Administrative” deportation decisions are implemented immediately without informing the deportees of their right to appeal at the Supreme Court of Justice.
This investigation revealed that the security services and the Directorate of Refugee Affairs expelled 10 refugees to Syria where they risked death, hunger and disease. They were forced to leave behind their families in a strange land.
Thus, these actions are 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’s 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 face threats to their lives and freedoms. Amid conflicting figures, the Ministry of Interior–responsible for public security and the director for Syrian refugees camp in Jordan–abstained from providing information on this subject. 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 registered in Jordan.
The investigators attempted to gain access to the names of the 10 deported Syrians in a bid to 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 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 Amman-based Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for the organization.
These deportees included 12 who were wounded or injured and were receiving treatment at a rehabilitation center in the city of Ramtha, steps away from her Syrian twin sister city of Daraa and about 90 kilometers north of Amman. The deportees also included unaccompanied children. The report states that all evictees were registered with the UNHCR.
“We focused 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
Um Rassoul, a Syrian refugee, 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.
“They didn’t care about his situation. They prevented him from seeing his daughter for even for an hour,” Umm Rassoul recalled. “Everything has become different. The cost of living, the children’s schooling and the new baby. This is now our responsibility.”
Expulsion Means Death
The expelled Syrian refugee Abu Rassoul conveyed to us in his testimony and via pictures sent by telephone from Syria that 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 the dates of their expulsion. 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: “There is no safety in Syria. There are massacres in Syria. God appointed unto them truly unbearable 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 these investigative reporters via email this terse sentence: “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 as Jordanian authorities were preparing to expel her only son to Syria. She begged the lawyer to help him.
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.
He expressed fear that the problem of deporting refugees could turn into a “phenomenon and procedure,” noting that, “the size of the problem is growing and is now surfacing, day after day. Every day cases and contacts come to me.”
He said: “as a person who has covered this file, I expect the number to be more double with people who work in the same field like NGO’S and human rights centers, there are other refugees who have been deported without being able to reach anyone to complain.”
“The number of deportations increased dramatically in 2014, but I don’t believe they have reached estimates mentioned by Mr Coogle from Human Rights Watch”.
Lawyer Al-Shakhatra succeeded in protecting six refugees from expulsion to Syria. Of the 28 cases, he succeeded in providing 21% of them with a lifeline against violations threatening their lives. 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”.
The UNHCR’s written response to both investigative journalists said: “Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has defended thousands of refugees to prevent forcible deportation, and succeeded in many cases.” Yet “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 UNHCR 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 non-refoulement, 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/she 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 at the Directorate of Refugee Affairs or security agencies did not hear any of the legal rights of the expelled refugees 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 who has been issued with an expulsion decision should be given the right and the opportunity to appeal this decision 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 professor of international law Dr. Ayman Halaseh.
In each of the cases that were reviewed by both journalists 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 law No. 47 of 2007 guaranteeing the right to access information No. 47 for the year 2007. We sent them 14 questions, including some which inquired about the number of Syrian refugees who were forcibly deported to Syria since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the legal and legislative base for those decisions and whether the Ministry of Interior is responsible for the deportation decisions.
The 30-day legal period for receiving the replies expired without the reporters getting any answers. They attempted to contact the media spokesman for the ministry, Dr. Ziad al-Zoubi, and the Director of Syrian Refugee Affairs, Brigadier General Waddah al-Hmoud, for more than 12 times, to no avail.
We sent letters asking for an interview with then Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali as well as the head of the Directorate of the Syrian Refugee Affairs, General Waddah al-Hmoud without any success.
The authors of this investigation also tried to contact the Director of the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Interior, Mu’taz Abu Jaber but got nowhere.
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-appointed institution headed by the Council and Minister of Culture. The complaint was made within the specified legal period.
However, the board decided by a majority of its members — 8 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.
On the sidelines of his press conference held on May 11, 2015 to announce the development plan Jordan 2025, both reporters publicly informed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nsour of their investigation into the 10 cases of refugees expelled by the Jordanian authorities.
Prime Minister al-Nsour rushed to deny that Jordan may be involved in the deportation of Syrian refugees.
At the same conference, Al-Nsour got back to the allegations that Jordan had expelled 10 refugees because they had entered Jordanian territory through ways that were not officially coordinated. He said: “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-Nsour.
Lawyer Hazem Al-Shakhatrh said the reasons for expelling refugees include “labor violations, working without legal work permits, attempts to escape from the camps without bail, entering Jordanian territory on 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. Standards vary from one person to another.”
Varied Yet One-Dimensional Reasons
In 7 of the 10 refugees whose deportation was documented in this investigation, their families did not learn of the reasons for their deportation.
Mansour and his wife were deported after she gave birth in Jordan as she entered Jordan 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 an act of fraud and required deportation, according to the mother of Mansour, a resident in Sahab.
The motive behind the expulsion of the third case, refugee Salem, was because he was working without a permit 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 questions posed by both reporters 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. This happened though the exact number of Syrian workers in violation of the labor laws during that period was 23,500.
According to the lawyer al-Shakhatra, the majority of deportation cases which he dealt with were related to work irregularities. Nine of 22 cases of expulsion were due to being caught working without permits.
It was not possible for both reporters 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 had told them that the police expelled them, while in possession of valid security and asylum identities, because of their working without permits.
Minister of State for Media Affairs and government spokesman Dr. Mohammad Al-Momani told both reporters in May 2015: “The Ministry of Labor 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 Labor. 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 of documented deportations, the deportees reached out to the UNHCR in order to save them from deportation, but no solutions were found, according to relatives of the deportees.
Abed, the son of the Syrian refugee Mohamed who was killed in Syria after being expelled from Jordan, said, “I told the lawyer at the UNHCR at the time we learned that the government here 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 will find a compromise no problem”
-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 relayed this story to UNHCR representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, because his office is in charge of securing international protection for refugees including against prosecution. Harper responded with signs of surprise on his face: “We need to check in on this case, as you have just informed me of it, 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.”
“The government will state that it’s security interests are 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 enter illegally 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.”
Lawyer 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 one, it means I am offering a human being to death?” Al-Shakhatra wondered.
After her family ended up in diaspora living under the illusion of UN-run and state protection, Um Rassoul decided to join her deported husband, favoring going to the hell of war voluntarily. To forcibly expel is to inflict death.
*This investigation was completed by the investigative journalism unit at Radio al-Balad and AmmanNet with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – ww.arij.net