Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria in 2011, Jordan has welcomed over 607,000 refugees seeking safe haven from the bloodshed and fighting there. Jordan, however, has not allowed all groups from Syria to seek refuge in the country. Authorities began denying entry to Palestinians living in Syria beginning in April 2012 and officially declared a non-admittance policy in January 2013.
In declaring the 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.” The head of Jordan’s Royal Hashemite Court told Human Rights Watch in May 2013 that the influx of Palestinians would alter Jordan’s demographic balance and potentially lead to instability.
In accordance with this policy, Jordanian security forces turn away Palestinians from Syria at Jordan’s borders, and seek to detain and deport back to Syria those who enter at unofficial border crossings using forged Syrian identity documents, or those who enter illegally via smuggling networks. Jordan does in principle allow in Palestinians from Syria who hold Jordanian citizenship but even for this category of Palestinians, Jordanian authorities have denied entry to those with expired Jordanian documents and in some cases have arbitrarily stripped them of their citizenship and forcibly returned them to Syria.
Deportations of Palestinians to Syria are a violation of Jordan’s international obligation of nonrefoulement, the international customary law prohibition on the return of refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or the return of anyone to the risk of torture.
In spite of Jordan’s non-admittance policy, as of July 2014, over 14,000 Palestinians from Syria had sought support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Jordan since the beginning of the conflict. Of the 14,000, approximately 1,300 reported entering Jordan before authorities began pushbacks of Palestinians at the Syrian border. Most of these come from Palestinian refugee camps and villages in southern Syria or from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus, all areas that have witnessed intense fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces. Before the March 2011 uprising began, approximately 520,000 Palestinian refugees were registered with UNRWA in Syria.
As a result of the Jordanian government’s policy, many Palestinians from Syria do not have proper residency papers in Jordan and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation, arrest, and deportation. Undocumented Palestinians from Syria inside Jordan cannot call on the protection of the Jordanian government when facing exploitation or other abuses because of the risk of arrest and deportation. Unlike Syrians, Palestinians cannot legally live in the official refugee camps for Syrians and have no choice but to rent apartments in Jordanian towns and cities, but cannot legally work to earn money for rent.
According to the Syria Needs Analysis Project (SNAP), a non-governmental monitoring group that provides independent analysis of the humanitarian situation of those affected by the Syrian crisis, since 2013 Jordanian security services have detained and returned over 100 Palestinians to Syria. In its February 2013 Syria Crisis Response Annual Report, UNRWA noted that the agency has documented numerous cases of forcible return, including of women and children.
Human Rights Watch documented Jordan’s refoulement of seven Palestinians from Syria in 2013 and 2014, and the transfer of four others to Cyber City, a closed holding facility for Palestinian and Syrian refugees. At this writing there are approximately 180 Palestinians and 200 Syrians residing in the facility. 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.
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. Many left Jordan to Syria during or after the 1970-71 Black September conflict between Palestinian guerrilla fighters and the Jordanian army. The Jordanian government has not explicitly stated that its non-entry policy for Palestinians is tied to the Black September history. 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 40 years ago.
While Jordan has generally allowed Palestinians with valid Jordanian documents into the country, these individuals are at risk of being arbitrarily stripped of their Jordanian citizenship and deported if they seek to access government services in Jordan. Human Rights Watch documented the arrest and removal of citizenship from ten Palestinians who were Jordanian citizens. 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.
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.
In all cases of deportation documented by Human Rights Watch, 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.
Donor countries and local and international aid agencies have not acted to adequately address the humanitarian concerns facing Palestinians from Syria living in Jordan. Although at least 14,000 Palestinians have entered Jordan from Syria since the beginning of the conflict, few agencies provide any humanitarian assistance to these refugees. The 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan’s section on Jordan, which frames policy dialogue and operational coordination, excludes Palestinians, and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), the local coordination mechanism for aid agencies working on the Syria refugee response in Jordan chaired by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), does not discuss issues relating to Palestinians from Syria.
The recent policy of non-admittance of Palestinians stands in marked contrast to Jordan’s treatment of Syrian nationals, upon whom Jordan has not placed any formal entry restrictions. Since the outbreak of fighting in Syria, over half a million Syrians have fled to Jordan, seeking refuge from violence and destruction in their homeland. The conflict has claimed at least 150,000 lives and left entire cities and villages in ruins.
Other countries in the region also deny safe haven to Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria or restrict their entry. Other than Turkey, all of Syria’s neighbors have placed onerous restrictions on entry for Palestinians attempting to flee generalized violence and unlawful attacks by both government forces and non-state armed groups.
Although not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Jordan is nevertheless bound by customary international law not to return refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened. The Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR ExCom), of which Jordan is a member, adopted Conclusion 25 in 1982, declaring that “the principle of nonrefoulement ... was progressively acquiring the character of a peremptory rule of international law.”
Jordanian authorities should rescind the non-admittance policy for Palestinians refugees from Syria and cease all deportations of Palestinian refugees back to Syria. 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.
Jordan is not the only country neighboring Syria that has placed entry restrictions on Palestinians from Syria. All neighboring countries must respect the rights of Palestinian refugees to seek safety and asylum outside Syria as long as they face insecurity and persecution there. The burden of providing safety and asylum should not fall solely on the neighboring countries (Jordan and Lebanon being the preferred countries of flight for the Palestinians), but should be shared by countries in the region and beyond.
Countries outside the region should provide financial assistance to countries that take Palestinian refugees from Syria and consider accepting vulnerable Palestinian refugees for temporary humanitarian resettlement. Palestinian refugees should not have to forfeit their right of return by accepting an offer of temporary resettlement in a third country.