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A Yemeni asylum seeker who arrived in Jordan in 2014, overlooks the city in the neighborhood of Abu Nseir, North of Amman, Jordan on March 25, 2021. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have deported at least four Yemeni asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and have issued deportation orders against others who made asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities handed down most of the deportation orders after the Yemenis attempted to apply for work permits and regularize their immigration status in the country.

As of March 16, 2021, Jordan hosted 13,843 Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since January 2019, a Jordanian regulation has effectively prevented UNHCR from recognizing anyone but Syrians as refugees, leaving many without access to humanitarian services and at risk of deportation.

“Jordan’s reputation for welcoming refugees is tarnished if it sends people back who are at serious risk of harm in their home countries,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordanian authorities need to match words with deeds by allowing individuals to safely make asylum claims and get services available to other refugee groups such as work permits.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 Yemeni asylum seekers and refugees between late January and mid-March, including 4 deported to Yemen since November 2020 and 8 in Jordan who face deportation orders, which can be enforced at any moment. Eight said the deportation decisions were handed down after they applied to the Interior Ministry for work permit approvals.

Human Rights Watch also spoke in February with a Yemeni refugee who volunteers to help detained asylum seekers obtain legal aid. The volunteer said that detentions, deportation decisions, and actual deportations have all increased since mid-2020.  The volunteer said that prior to mid-2020, the authorities usually did not require Yemenis to drop their refugee or asylum seeker status to obtain a work permit.

Those who were deported said they were held in detention for at least a month, and that they were deported even though they showed the authorities their UNHCR asylum seeker certificates which are renewed annually. One said his certificate had expired, though he had not sought a change in status.

Two of those now in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, said they are living in fear. One, who entered Jordan just before he turned 18, said that he applied for a work permit a few times prior to his arrest in July 2020, but his applications were rejected. The authorities arrested him while he tried to cross into Aqaba city in southern Jordan, telling him he was in the country illegally.

He remained in detention for eight months, during which his family, who are in Jordan, submitted a request to the Interior Ministry to cancel the deportation order, but it was rejected. The authorities then insisted that he leaves the country at his own expense even though he showed them his asylum seeker certificate. His family was only able to afford his flight back to Yemen in March. He said he feared forced conscription by the Houthi armed group, also known as Ansar Allah, that has controlled Sanaa since 2014.  “I haven’t left my house since I came back to Sanaa,” he said. “People don’t know that I am back here. I was in a prison in Jordan and I am in a prison in Yemen - it’s the same thing.”

Another Yemeni deportee who first registered as an asylum seeker in Jordan in 2016 told Human Rights Watch over the phone in February that he applied for a work permit in late 2019 but that it was rejected. He said that an Interior Ministry official said that he must give up his asylum seeker certificate to apply for a work permit, but he refused. In December 2020, police arrested him on the street in Amman. He spent about 25 days in a detention center in Amman before he was able to borrow money to pay for his flight back to Yemen. He said his life is at risk in Yemen.

Four of those still in Jordan said that they were detained after they were stopped by police patrols to show identification and were told there were deportation orders against them. Four said that they were able to find Jordanian sponsors to bail them out of detention, but their deportation orders remain in place.

Article 37 of the Law on Residence and Foreigners’ Affairs on 1973 states that the interior minister can order deportations without explanation, but people can appeal to Jordan’s Administrative Court. A lawyer working in an organization providing legal aid for some detained Yemenis told Human Rights Watch that the court almost never overturns these decisions.

In two other cases, Jordanian employers applied for work permits for their Yemeni employees but were told by the Interior Ministry two weeks after submitting their applications that they were rejected and that the Yemenis were subject to deportation orders.

One Yemeni woman in al-Salt city said that the registration ban has prevented her and her family from registering as asylum seekers with UNHCR. She said that the police arrested her husband on a bus in January after asking for his ID as part of a security inspection and was told that he has a deportation order.

Her husband was detained for two days before his family was able to bail him out by signing a document pledging that he would leave Jordan within a month. The woman said she submitted a request to the Interior Ministry in mid-January to cancel the deportation order but was unsuccessful: “They said he needs to leave the country, but where will we go? We do not have money. We sold everything to come seek protection in Jordan. Where will I get the money to travel?” 

Another man from Yemen’s Taiz governorate who has lived in Jordan since 2014 said he has had an asylum seeker certificate since 2015 and was also able to obtain a work permit in late 2019. In November 2020, when he tried to renew his work permit, he said, the Interior Ministry told him to visit General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Jordan’s main intelligence agency, where officials told him to “pack [his] things and hand himself to authorities within two weeks.”

The international legal principle of nonrefoulement prohibits countries from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction to a country where they may face persecution, torture, or other serious harm.  This principle is part of international human rights law through treaties Jordan has ratified and customary international law and is binding on all countries.

Under the Jordan Compact, a 2016 agreement between the Jordanian government and donor countries to improve the livelihoods of Syrian refugees, the authorities have issued thousands of work permits for Syrian refugees since 2016. A legal paper by The Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), a local nongovernmental organization, states that Jordan created the so-called “free work permit” as part of the Jordan Compact,  which Syrians could obtain without fees to work freely in the agricultural and construction sectors.

As of September 2019, the prime minister approved extending the same system to all non-Jordanian workers in the country for a minimum fee of JD 600 ($846), depending on the type of permit, excluding visa overstay fines and the cost of a medical exam. Most Yemenis have been applying for “free work permits.”

Almost all funding in the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis has been directed to Syrians and vulnerable Jordanians. Refugees from countries other than Syria do not have the same access to basic health, education, shelter services, and have fewer legal rights. In late 2015, Jordan imposed a pre-arrival visa on Yemenis wishing to enter the country.  

Over six years into an armed conflict that has killed and injured over 18,569 civilians, Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Human Rights Watch has documented a wide range of serious violations and abuses committed by parties to the conflict in Yemen.

“By banning registration of new asylum seekers and retaliating against Yemenis who apply for work status, Jordan appears to be closing off legal avenues for Yemenis to seek protection,” Page said. “Jordan’s actions are leaving people vulnerable to forced return and harm back in Yemen.”

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