(Geneva) – The Jordanian authorities have forcibly returned some newly arriving Palestinians from Syria and threatened others with deportation, Human Rights Watch said today.Since April 2012, the authorities have also arbitrarily detained Palestinians fleeing Syria in a refugee holding center without any options for release other than return to Syria. The Jordanian authorities should treat all Palestinians from Syria seeking refuge in Jordan the same as Syrian asylum seekers, who are allowed to remain and can move freely in Jordan after passing security screening and finding a sponsor.
In mid-June 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 Palestinians, including women and children, in Jordan. Like thousands of Syrians, they had entered Jordan without passing through an official border post, but unlike Syrians, they had been detained for months with no possibility of release. Three men said they or their brothers had been forcibly returned to Syria, while six men – three with families including small children – said they had been taken to the border and threatened with deportation although they were then allowed to stay in Jordan.
“To its credit, Jordan has allowed tens of thousands of Syrians to cross its borders irregularly and move freely in Jordan, but it treats Palestinians fleeing the same way differently,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch. “All those fleeing Syria – Syrians and Palestinians alike – have a right to seek asylum in Jordan, move freely in Jordan, and shouldn’t be forced back into a war zone.”
Since April, Jordanian authorities have automatically detained all Palestinians who enter Jordan without passing through an official border post, without the possibility of release. No such policy exists for thousands of Syrians entering the same way.
The Palestinians are arriving under the same circumstances as the fleeing Syrians and should not face threats of forced return, Human Rights Watch said. None should be detained unless for compelling and legally prescribed reasons and for a limited period of time, with judicial review. Like Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Jordan said they had fled the country due to violence and general insecurity in their home areas.
In response to questions about the forced return and threatened forced return of Palestinians to Syria, Dr. Sa’d al-Wadi al-Manasir, the general secretary of the Interior Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that Jordan had “not sent any Palestinians back, period” and that there had been “no threats of refoulement, period.” He also said that “if there was a ‘no entry policy’” that would be “different from sending them back” and that Jordan was “not preventing Palestinians with documents from coming in,” implying that Palestinians trying to enter without identity documents would be denied entry.
Palestinians contradicted these assertions, telling Human Rights Watch that they were deported to Syria from inside Jordan. Nine detained Palestinians told Human Rights Watch they had been deported, knew of relatives who had been deported, or had been taken with their families to the border by Jordanian Military Security, who ordered them at gunpoint to cross but relented after the families pleaded with them not to send them back to Syria. Others said they had spoken by phone to friends and relatives in Syria who said they knew of Palestinians who had been turned back by Jordanian security at the border for no stated reason.
Although Jordan has not signed or ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, customary international refugee law and international human rights law requires it to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits countries from sending anyone back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
Human Rights Watch said that Jordan should extend its current policy of providing de facto temporary protection to Syrian “guests” to include Palestinian residents of Syria who are also fleeing the conflict there.
Under customary international law, asylum seekers cannot be forcibly returned to a place where they claim a fear of being persecuted unless that claim has been examined in a fair procedure and determined not to be well-founded. Asylum claims should be examined regardless of whether the asylum seeker carries valid travel and identity documents.
“There can be no excuse for deporting people to a situation where there is a real risk to their lives,” Simpson said. “The authorities should issue clear orders to security officials on the border to protect anyone crossing from Syria who is seeking asylum in Jordan.”
Palestinians Entering Syria Irregularly Threatened With Forced Return
The recent interviews with Syrians and Palestinians indicate that the vast majority of recent arrivals have crossed the border at night with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), because Syrian border guards at the only remaining border crossing between Syria and Jordan – at the Naseeb-Jaber crossing near the Jordanian town of Ramtha – are turning people back in large numbers. Some Syrians said they had managed to bribe the border guards – 30,000 Syrian Pounds (USD 470) per family – and a few women said they had crossed with their children without problems.
A Palestinian who crossed at night into Jordan on March 17, 2012, was immediately taken to Jordanian Military Security offices on the border and was forced twice to cross back into Syria, threatened with deportation a third time, and was then allowed to stay in Jordan. He told Human Rights Watch:
They told me I couldn’t stay in Jordan and refused to say why. They drove me back to the barbed wire where I had crossed and forced me at gunpoint to cross back into Syria. I walked 15 meters into Syria and then came straight back, while they were watching. They took me back to their barracks and kept interrogating me. At midnight they took me back and exactly the same thing happened. Again they took me back to the barracks, until morning. Then they drove me back to the border a third time but they could hear gunshots nearby so they took pity on me and drove me to the [refugee] center in Beshabshe.
A 20-year-old Palestinian man who crossed the border at 5 a.m. on March 25 with his wife and two children, ages two and three, with the help of the Free Syrian Army, said:
After we crossed, Jordan Military Security detained us all day, until midnight. I told them that seven of my brothers and three of my sisters were living in Amman [the Jordanian capital]. But without giving a reason, they said we couldn’t stay in Jordan and had to go back to Syria. They drove us to where we had crossed. We could hear shooting on the other side of the border so I lay down in front of the car with my children and said we were not going back. My wife fainted. Then without any explanation, they put us back into the car and drove us to the [refugee] center in Beshabshe.
Arbitrary Detention of Palestinians Fleeing Syria
As of June 25, almost 27,000 Syrian asylum seekers have been registered in Jordan since March 2011. This does not include the hundreds of Palestinians who have fled Syria who have been registered or assisted on an informal basis by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Jordan has temporarily detained all asylum seekers – Syrian nationals and Palestinians from Syria – who cross into Jordan without passing through the two countries’ only official border crossing. However, Jordan allows Syrian nationals to leave detention as soon as they establish their identity, pass security screening, and a Jordanian national steps forward to act as a guarantor. The guarantor undertakes to look after them in Jordan and to cooperate with the authorities if any issues arise relating to the person in their care.
The vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers are released within days, mostly from the Beshabshe transit center – where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registers most of the Syrians fleeing the violence into Jordan – and from where they move to towns and cities. The average number of Syrians registered by UNHCR in Beshabshe transit center in June was around 150 a day.
Only a few hundred Syrians unable to find guarantors have been transferred to one of two holding centers – Cyber City or Ramtha Stadium – where they wait for weeks, or in some cases months, to find a guarantor. About 750 people are currently in the Beshabshe transit center and another 750 are in Cyber City and Ramtha Stadium.
Palestinians coming from Syria, most of whom have relatives in Jordan, were until recently also released under the guarantor policy. But in mid-April 2012, the authorities began excluding them from the policy without giving any reasons.
Since then, all Palestinians not crossing into Jordan through an official border post have been taken to “Cyber City.” The name refers to a sprawling walled complex of technology companies near the town of Ramtha. Syrians unable to find guarantors and Palestinians are housed in an apartment block previously used by foreign employees working for the companies. As of June 25, 347 Syrian nationals and 140 Palestinians from Syria were living there in overcrowded conditions, receiving assistance from international aid agencies, including UNHCR and UNRWA.
Those living in the apartments can move around nearby but are guarded by police posted 30 meters from the front door and cannot leave the immediate area.
UNHCR’s Guidelines on the Detention of Asylum-Seekers define detention as “confinement within a narrowly bounded or restricted location, including prisons, closed camps, detention facilities or airport transit zones where freedom of movement is substantially curtailed, and the only opportunity to leave this limited area is to leave the territory.” The way Palestinians are held at Cyber City, with no possibility of release, meets UNHCR’s definition of detention.
Palestinians in Cyber City told Human Rights Watch that the last Palestinian arrived there in early June.
A 29-year-old Palestinian woman recounted how the shift in policy for Palestinians had split up her family:
I arrived on April 22 with one of my sisters, one of my brothers, my mother and a two-month-old nephew. My father and my other sister had already crossed in August last year and were released when they found a guarantor. But the rest of us arrived after they said no Palestinian could be released, so now we are stuck here. Meanwhile, my father and sister live close by in his own house here in Jordan, which he has owned since the 1970s.
Dr. al-Manaseer, general secretary at the Interior Ministry, explained the policy of releasing Syrians and detaining Palestinians to Human Rights Watch by saying that Palestinians were not facing violence in Syria. He said that the 140 Palestinians in Cyber City had not yet been deported as a “humanitarian gesture.” He was unable to explain why Jordan changed its policy in mid-April so that Palestinians crossing irregularly were no longer allowed to enter and freely move in Jordan.
Conditions for Palestinians in Syria
On June 28, Human Rights Watch spoke with Palestinians in Syria by phone. They said that Syrian security forces are detaining hundreds of people, including Palestinians, in the Yarmouk suburb of Damascus where 200,000 Palestinians live. Yarmouk is surrounded by neighborhoods where there has been unrest, such asAl Hajar Al Aswad, Al-Qaddam, Al-Midan, Al-Tadamon, and Al-Zahra. Some Palestinians have joined anti-government protests in Yarmouk at which Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces have clashed with the Syrian military.
They said that thousands of Palestinians have recently fled the city of Homs and its suburbs because of the violence there, as well as from Daraa due to recent heavy shelling, and have sought refuge in Yarmouk.
Government artillery also reportedly killed four, and injured 15, Palestinians in a Palestinian refugee camp in the town of Deraa on June 26.
“Palestinians from Syria say they are fleeing their homes because of fighting, generalized insecurity, and fear of arrest, just like Syrian refugees,” Simpson said. “Jordan’s differing treatment of Syrian and Palestinian asylum seekers looks like nationality-based discrimination, rather than treatment based on objective evidence that Palestinians in Syria face less risk of harm than Syrians.”
International Law on Detention of Asylum Seekers
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) strictly prohibits arbitrary detention, stating that, “No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.” It says that everyone detained has the right to have the legality of their detention reviewed by a court, which should order their release if the detention is not lawful.
The ICCPR also prohibits any discrimination on the grounds of national origin. This means that any differential treatment between Syrians and Palestinians needs to be strictly justified, which the Jordanian authorities have failed to do, Human Rights Watch said.
If the Jordanian authorities are concerned that Palestinians fleeing Syria constitute a threat to national security, they are obliged under international law to make an individual determination that detention is necessary, according to clear Jordanian law and subject to judicial review, Human Rights Watch said. They may not determine that an entire group is a threat.
“Jordan should allow all asylum seekers caught up in the fighting in Syria to enter and stay at least temporarily,” Simpson said, “They should be welcomed without discrimination based on their national origin and without fear of arbitrary detention or forced return.”