Still from a video by a Syrian showing an informal tent camp just inside the Jordanian border at Hadalat taken in late 2014.

(Beirut) – Jordanian authorities have severely restricted informal border crossings in the eastern part of the country since late March, 2015, stranding hundreds of Syrians in remote desert areas just inside Jordan’s border. Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery and interviewed international aid workers. They said the Syrians have only limited access to food, water, and medical assistance. Jordan should allow the stranded people to move further into Jordan, and let UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, register them as asylum seekers.

Until March, the informal border crossings were the only entry points into Jordan still open to most Syrians. Recent satellite imagery shows a large group of people in an area with some tents just inside the border near two of the informal crossings. Aid agencies estimated that about 2,500 people were stranded there by April 10, but an international aid worker told Human Rights Watch that this number had dropped to around 1,000 by late May after the Jordanian border guards allowed some of them to move out of the border zone.

“Jordan has gone to great lengths to meet the needs of the Syrian refugees,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “But that is no excuse to abandon newer arrivals in remote border areas for weeks without effective protection and regular aid access.”

Until mid-2013, Jordan allowed Syrians to enter Jordan through all of its informal border crossings in the east and west, though it refused entry to many single Syrian men crossing without relatives, Palestinian refugees from Syria, and undocumented people. Most Syrians crossed at informal western entry points from Daraa governorate near the Syrian towns of Tel Shihab, Hayat, and Nassib.

In mid-2013, Jordan closed all its informal western border crossings, which are much closer to populated areas of Jordan and Syria than those in the east, to all but war-wounded Syrians – both combatants and civilians – and other exceptional cases. The western crossing points have remained closed. Jordan’s official Jaber/Nassib border crossing, about eight kilometers southeast of the city of Daraa, remained open to people the government of Jordan determined were not asylum seekers until April 2, when it was taken by Syrian rebel fighters and closed. The Jordanian and Syrian governments closed another official crossing, between the Jordanian city Ramtha and Syrian city of Daraa, in September 2012. In May 2014 Jordan officially barred entry at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to all Syrians without Jordanian residency permits or special exceptions.

Closing the western route meant that Syrians hoping to escape to Jordan without going through Syrian government checkpoints had to travel across dangerous areas of Syria to cross through the informal eastern border crossings that remained open. Jordan heavily restricted entries at these eastern crossings too, for the first time, in July 2014.

However, on December 11, Jordan finally allowed Syrians to enter and transferred them to nearby transit centers, then transported them to the Raba Sarhan registration center operated by the government and UNHCR near the city of Mafraq. One international aid worker said that some Syrians who went through Raba Sarhan told him they were permitted to register as asylum seekers while others were deported to Syria.

Human Rights Watch contacted one Syrian inside Syria, who said that he had entered in December but was immediately deported. The Strategic Needs Analysis Project (SNAP), a nongovernmental monitoring group, said in a January report that “[e]vidence is mounting that refugees arriving at the border are being brought into Jordanian territory, screened at the Government of Jordan (GoJ) registration center, and then immediately deported to Syria without being registered.”

Such summary returns would amount to refoulement, which violates the prohibition in customary international law on returning a person to a real risk of persecution – where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment.

The UNHCR stated in its latest country guidance on Syria that “all parts of the country are now embroiled in violence,” and urged “all countries to ensure that persons fleeing Syria, including Palestine refugees and other habitual residents of Syria, are admitted to their territory and are able to seek asylum.”

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensor, who addressed the Third International Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait on March 31, told attendees that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded Jordan’s capacity to respond. As of May, Jordan had 627,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR.

Other countries should share responsibility and accept vulnerable Syrians for entry and resettlement, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR has proposed that by 2016 countries outside the region including the United States and European Union countries should resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees currently living in countries near Syria. But these countries have only pledged to take 87,442, or two percent.

International donors should also step up assistance to Jordan and aid agencies working on the Syria crisis, including through long-term development funding. The UNHCR Jordan office, which coordinates the refugee response, has raised only 17 percent of its US$1 billion budget goal for 2015.

“Each Syrian stuck in the desert is a testament to the failure of the badly needed international refugee response,” Houry said. “But leaving desperate people in a desert border zone is not the answer.”

Jordanian Border Policy Since Mid-2013
The closure of the informal crossings near Daraa in mid-2013 meant that for many Syrians the only escape option was to travel hundreds of kilometers east – through the desert and often through active conflict areas – from Daraa to Jordan’s remote northeast border areas and cross at Rukban, 100 kilometers northwest of the Jordanian town al-Ruweishid, and at Hadalat, 50 kilometers north of al-Ruweishid.

The informal crossing points at Hadalat and Rukban are both near Jordanian military bases. Syrians and Jordanian officials generally call all of the eastern desert crossings “al-Ruweishid.” International aid workers told Human Rights Watch that from mid-2014, higher numbers of Syrians from areas other than Daraa, including Aleppo and northeastern Syrian areas under the control of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), started seeking asylum at the eastern borders.

In July 2014, the Jordanian military started preventing many Syrians from entering through the eastern border crossing, forcing them to remain just north of a raised barrier of sand, or “berm,” which marks the Jordanian limit of a border zone between Syria and Jordan. The area where the Syrians were stranded is inside Jordanian territory.

By October, about 4,000 Syrians were effectively stranded at the berm without regular access to aid, according to media reports, international humanitarian workers, and a refugee interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had been stranded at the berm for 10 days. Satellite imagery taken in early October and November of the border area near Rukban and analyzed by Human Rights Watch indicates that hundreds of people were still stranded there.

Between December and March, Jordan changed its policy and allowed Syrians seeking to center Jordan through the eastern route near Hadalat and Rukban to travel to Raba Sarhan, where they were screened. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which provides transportation for Syrians from Raba Sarhan to Azraq Camp, 65 kilometers east of Amman where Syrians are allowed to seek asylum stay, said that 5,438 Syrians arrived in Azraq during the first quarter of 2015.

However, in late March, Jordanian authorities, without announcing why, again prevented many Syrians from entering the country via the eastern crossings, forcing them instead to stay near the berm, the aid workers said.

By April 10, the aid agencies estimated that about 2,500 people were stranded there. Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the physical condition of arrivals was poor, but that some UN agencies and international organizations were providing some assistance, with the permission of the Jordanian authorities. One aid worker said the number had dropped to 1,000 by late May as the Jordanian authorities slowly processed and admitted some.

Satellite images of the berm area showed that as of April 20, there were 175 tent structures on the northern side of the berm near Rubkan, indicating the likely presence of hundreds of Syrians, and 68 informal tent structures on the northern side of the berm near Hadalat.

A series of news releases by Jordan’s official news agency indicate that Jordanian border guards “received” about 800 Syrian refugees in April, and over 1,100 from May 1-24, but it is unknown how many were permitted to register with UNHCR and enter Azraq Camp.

Journey to the Eastern Border Crossings
Human Rights Watch interviewed four Syrians who entered Jordan via the eastern crossing points in 2014, including one who returned to Syria after being stranded at the berm in Hadalat, and another who entered in December but whom Jordanian authorities summarily returned to Syria from the Raba Sarhan registration center.

The Syrians said the journey from southern Syria near Jordan’s western border to the east took up to one week and required them to cross highways and other areas controlled by the Syrian military.

Two said that Syrian soldiers fired at them from military posts and checkpoints. The trip also required navigating a remote rocky area north of the government-controlled city of al-Sweida, known as al-Laja, part of which can only be crossed on foot. The Syrians said that once they reached the desert northeast of al-Sweida, Bedouin drivers picked them up in cattle trucks and transported them off road to the desert border point. He said that the entire trip cost 25,000 Syrian Pounds (US$132) per person.

One Syrian, Amer (not his real name), from Daraya in the Damascus suburbs, entered Jordan in March 2014 to reunite with his 21-year-old son, who had come to Jordan for emergency medical treatment for a serious leg injury from a barrel bomb attack earlier that month. He had been refused entry in the west:

We came to Jordan after getting smuggled to al-Ruweishid in a vehicle… A car took us near al-Sweida off road through open land. The trip took 15 hours. Then we had to get out and walk for eight hours through the desert, and in the middle we met a group of Shabeeha (government aligned militia fighters) and had to pay them 50,000 Syrian pounds [$300 USD] to leave us alone. When we crossed past al-Sweida there were Bedouin cattle trucks waiting for us, each held 60 people, including women and children.

He said they were able to enter Jordan through one of the eastern informal border crossings.

A UNHCR statement said in August 2014: “There are worrying signs … that the journey out of Syria is becoming tougher, with many people forced to pay bribes at armed checkpoints proliferating along the borders. Refugees crossing the desert into eastern Jordan are being forced to pay smugglers hefty sums (US$100 a head or more) to take them to safety.”

Another Syrian, Maher, who attempted to cross into Jordan from Hadalat in September, said his group came under fire in Syria as they walked across the main highway between al-Sweida and Damascus, an area controlled by the Syrian government:

At exactly 9 p.m. [our guides] told us men to cross the road before the women. We were around 14 men, and the rest stayed back with their families to follow behind us. We crossed the highway near one of the regime checkpoints centered on the highway only two kilometers away. About 400 meters after crossing they opened fire from the checkpoint… We threw ourselves on the ground and dropped our bags and luggage, which we struggled to carry the whole trip. We began to crawl at some points and run at other points. The car that was supposed to pick us up left after they opened fire.

We were in a pitiful state of fatigue and weariness. The women and children behind us could not cross the road and they retreated back after they opened fire. Every time we moved away from the highway the shooting would increase. We continued in spite of the exhaustion that overcame us until we arrived at a village called Shanwan east of the Damascus-Sweida Highway by around 30 kilometers, which we reached on foot…

Maher said that the men later reunited with the women and children and eventually reached Hadalat, where he was blocked by Jordan from entering and stranded at the border for 10 days before deciding to return to his village in Daraa.

2014 Border Closures and Refoulement
In mid-November, the UNHCR Jordan representative, Andrew Harper, told the New York Times that the number of new Syrian entries to Jordan had declined from 5,000 in September to 500 in October and “very few” in November, and confirmed reports of a “large group of Syrians near the Jordanian border.” According to the Strategic Needs Analysis Project (SNAP), “by early October, no new arrivals were reported and about 5,000 Syrians were stranded with the JAF [Jordanian Armed Forces] denying humanitarian agencies access to the area.” Several other international organizations providing relief at the border told Human Rights Watch that they had irregular access to the area.

Human Rights Watch analyzed a series of satellite images recorded between late July and early November and found evidence strongly suggesting the number of Syrians blocked by Jordanian authorities at the Rukban berm had increased during this period. The number of tent structures at the Rukban site visible in the satellite images rose from approximately 110 on July 25 to 160 by October 2, and exceeded 175 by November 2.

The Syrian refugee encampment at Rukban is inside Jordanian territory a kilometer south of the Syrian border, just north of the large earthen berm that runs parallel to the border. By mutual agreement, the Syrians and Jordanians erected berms on their territory an equal distance from this section of the border, creating a demilitarized border zone, with half in each country.

Satellite images recorded on the morning of November 2 clearly showed these tents concentrated on the northern side, inside Jordan. Several hundred people were standing on the northern side of the berm, possibly waiting for water from two large tankers parked on the other side, and several hundred other people were standing among the tents.

Several aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that despite limiting entry into Jordan, Jordanian border guards took in at least 900 Syrians at the Rukban crossing mid-October. Only 344 of this group arrived at the registration center, the humanitarian workers said, indicating that the rest had most likely been forcibly returned to southern Syria. Such returns amount to refoulement.

On December 11, Jordan cleared the border of all Syrians, taking them to Raba Sarhan, but several of the aid workers said that a majority of the Syrians were immediately returned to Syria. The informal border crossings in eastern Jordan remained largely open from December 11 until late March, when authorities again partially closed them.

Maher described conditions on the border in late September:

The car dropped us off far from the [border] embankment, around two kilometers, and we went on foot until we arrived. There were a group of empty tents and we sat in one of the tents hoping to enter Jordan … We stayed there hoping to enter day after day; meanwhile we were suffering from biting cold at night and dust and high temperatures during the day until we arrived to the tenth day in this state in a desert area … people were increasingly coming to the place and there were no longer enough tents and anyone who newly arrived had nothing before him now except to sit out in the open amid great suffering.

An aid worker who interviewed three Syrians separately who had arrived at the Azraq camp in late November said that one told him she waited at the eastern border between 20 and 35 days before being permitted to enter Jordan properly. He said another Syrian woman told him that of the 60 people in the group with whom she crossed the border, only 9, including her and her relatives, were allowed to go to the Azraq camp. He said she told him that the Jordanian authorities only permitted the most vulnerable cases to enter, but returned the majority, including women and children, to Syria from Raba Sarhan after taking them from the border area. He said that one of the women told him that she saw sick people, some of whom appeared to be dying, while waiting at the berm.

One 56-year old Syrian man in southern Syria told Human Rights Watch by phone that he had waited 14 days in December to cross into Jordan at the berm, but that Jordanian authorities had immediately returned him to Syria from Raba Sarhan with no explanation. He said that he had been a registered Syrian asylum seeker in Jordan until mid-2014, but returned to Syria to bury his son after receiving word that he had been killed.

War-Wounded Syrians Seeking Treatment in Jordan
In 2012, the Government of Jordan, international organizations, and groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group fighting the Syrian government, established a medical evacuation process to allow war-wounded people – both combatants and civilians – from Syria to seek emergency medical treatment in Jordan. This process, in coordination with international aid organizations and Syrian medical workers, has facilitated treatment for thousands of wounded Syrians in Jordan.

After Jordanian authorities closed the informal crossings near Daraa in the west to virtually all Syrians in 2013 it continued to allow emergency medical cases to enter from Tel Shihab. The aid workers and Syrian medical workers in Jordan, however, told Human Rights Watch that in mid-2014 Jordan began limiting entries of war -wounded at Tel Shehab by imposing a more rigorous check and enforcing a requirement that every wounded person have a valid ID card regardless of the severity of their injury.

This requirement complicated entry for many severely wounded Syrians, particularly children under 12, who do not carry individual ID cards, or Syrians whose documents had been destroyed as a result of the violence. All Syrians living in opposition-controlled areas face difficulties crossing into government-controlled areas to renew official documents. The workers also said that Jordanian authorities did not allow relatives of severely injured minors to accompany them into Jordan.

The workers said Jordan permitted about 140 war-wounded to enter in March 2014, but by March 2015 the entries had fallen to about 60 a month, though the conflict in southern Syria has intensified.

In December, Jordanian authorities deported nine Syrian medical workers, without giving them any reason, in breach of Jordan’s non-refoulement obligations. The nine had been coordinating with Jordanian authorities, aid groups, and informal medical networks inside Syria to transport war wounded Syrians across the border and find them treatment in Jordan.

Palestinians from Syria
In addition to the recent limitations on entry to Syrians, since 2012 Jordan has blocked all Palestinians from Syria from entering the country and authorities seek to detain and deport all Palestinians from Syria who enter at unofficial or official border crossings using forged Syrian identity documents, or those who enter illegally via smuggling networks. Jordan does in principle allow Palestinians from Syria who hold Jordanian citizenship to enter the country 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, in violation of Jordan’s non-refoulement obligation.

(Note on methodology: This report is based on interviews Human Rights Watch researchers conducted between October 2014 and May 2015 with six Syrians who entered Jordan via the eastern informal crossing points and more than 10 international humanitarian workers who work with Syrian refugees in Jordan. In all cases, Human Rights Watch researchers explained the purpose of the interviews and gave assurances of anonymity where requested. None of the interviewees received monetary or other incentives for speaking with Human Rights Watch. We also received interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences and informed them that they could terminate the interview at any point. All interviews were in Arabic or English. Individual names have been changed and other identifying details removed to protect their identity and security.)