(Beirut) – Jordanian authorities on December 3, 2014, deported to Syria nine Syrians working to facilitate medical treatment in Jordan for war-wounded Syrians. These forcible returns violate the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, which forbids governments from returning people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

The men are with the Syrian War Wounded Liaison Office, a Syrian organization that works with informal medical networks inside Syria to transport war wounded Syrians across the border to Jordan for urgent medical treatment, in coordination with Jordanian authorities. The group includes Syrian doctors, nurses, and activists. A humanitarian worker told Human Rights Watch he believes the group has facilitated the entry of up to 2,000 wounded Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011.The move came a week after Jordan announced that Syrians can no longer receive free health care in Jordanian government health facilities.

“These men were simply helping wounded Syrians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Instead of deporting medical workers, Jordanian authorities should focus on expanding medical services to wounded Syrians.”

Two Syrian refugees who know the deported medical and humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian police arrested the head of the Syrian War Wounded Liaison Office on December 1 at his office near the Ramtha public hospital in that northern Jordanian city, then summoned the other eight men and detained them as well.

Human Rights Watch spoke by telephone with one of the deportees, Mahmoud (not his real name), on December 4. He said the police told the men they would be deported for operating without a license. He said the authorities confiscated their mobile phones and did not allow them to see a judge or challenge their deportations.

Human Rights Watch researchers had visited the group’s office in Ramtha in October. A representative, who is among the deportees, explained at that time how the group coordinated with informal medical networks in Syrian field hospitals to bring the war-wounded refugees across the border for medical care. The group worked with Jordanian public and private hospitals to find treatment for Syrians, many of whom had no money for their treatment.

Mahmoud told Human Rights Watch that all nine men were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and maintained valid security certificates from Jordan’s Public Security Directorate, which are required for all Syrian refugees living outside refugee camps. He also said that the group had coordinated their activities with Jordanian authorities for three years without any serious incident.

The deportation is the latest move by Jordanian authorities against Syrian refugees and informal Syrian rehabilitation facilities in Jordan. Jordan’s Health Ministry generally does not grant medical licenses to non-citizen doctors or license non-Jordanian medical facilities.

One Syrian refugee, Maher (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that authorities closed the unlicensed Dar al-Amal rehabilitation center for wounded Syrians in the northern town of Irbid on November 27, but Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the center’s closing.

On September 16, Jordanian authorities sent back 12 Syrians, most of whom had refugee certificates, who had been receiving treatment at the Syrian-run unlicensed Dar al-Karama rehabilitation center in the northern city of al-Ramtha. A Syrian refugee – Saeed (not his real name), who knew the deportees – and a humanitarian worker told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian police raided and forcibly closed the center, then took the men away and deported them. In November, Human Rights Watch spoke to one of them who needs further treatment for an eye wound.

The Daraa governorate, where the medical workers have been deported, has been the site of fierce clashes between the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian armed forces, and other armed groups for more than three years. Opposition-held towns and villages in Daraa have been subjected to frequent indiscriminate Syrian government attacks.

According to an October report by the Syria Needs Analysis Project (SNAP), a nongovernmental monitoring group that provides independent analysis of the humanitarian situation of those affected by the Syrian crisis, “the number of refoulements of Syrian refugees [by Jordan] has increased in September [2014], particularly of those with invalid or outdated documentation or who have gone to Syria and returned back to Jordan.” An August Human Rights Watch report documented Jordan’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians from Syria, including deportation of 16 Palestinians to Syria since the beginning of 2013.

Jordan should immediately facilitate the return of all deported refugees who wish to reenter Jordan, including wounded refugees and medical staff who want to reunite with their families, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should cease deportations and open the borders to Syrian refugees.

While Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Jordan is nevertheless bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement whether the person seeking asylum has been officially registered or not.

“As fighting in southern Syria intensifies, Jordan should not be targeting medical staff and wounded refugees who have nowhere else to flee,” Houry said. “Jordan should stop targeting informal medical facilities and help them provide proper medical care.”