A few hundred metres from the dusty, sleepy crossing that divides Jordan and Syria, Mohammad* waits on the roadside clutching a plastic bag and his blazer.
After 147 days in detention for participating in anti-government protests in his hometown of Dera’a in southern Syria, he left his wife and seven children behind and crossed into Jordan illegally, through a gap in barbed wire fencing. He had no choice, he says; those who are jailed have their names put on lists at the border barring them from leaving legally.
Syrians do not require a visa to enter Jordan, and before a popular uprising began in Syria last March, thousands of people crossed the border in both directions daily.
For a month now, Mohammad’s family has been trying to cross into Jordan legally to join him, but time after time, they have been turned back at the border.
Refugees and aid workers say the Syrian government has closed its official border crossing with Jordan to anyone with a new passport and to families, women and children. It allows only those who already have Jordanian stamps in their passports, or young men who come individually, to cross.
“The [government] doesn’t want people leaving Syria in droves and refugees bringing negative media attention,” Mohammad told IRIN.
The Syrian uprising began peacefully in March 2011 demanding democratic reforms, but the opposition has become increasingly armed in the face of a violent crackdown by the Syrian government. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says more than 7,500 people have been killed - mostly civilians in what has become a near civil-war. Up to 200,000 people are displaced within Syria, aid groups say, and tens of thousands of others have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
More illegal crossings
Jordanian government spokesperson Rakan al-Majali told IRIN only 2,400 of the 80,000 Syrians who have crossed into Jordan in the last year have done so illegally.
|The first time, they wouldn’t let us out. They said we would protest internationally and make Syria look bad. The last time, when we neared the border, we met people who said people who tried to leave were being targeted: women were being killed, and men electrocuted|
But those numbers are rising because of increased border restrictions, according to the Islamic Charity Centre Society, a local group working along the border in the nearby town of Mafraq.
In the last two weeks alone, 500 families have crossed into Jordan through the barbed wire fencing, said Khaled Fayez Ghanem, coordinator of Syrian refugees’ relief at the centre’s Mafraq branch.
“They started refusing families to leave,” he told IRIN. “When families leave, it gives the impression of a crisis in Syria.”
Mohammad communicates with his family through a smuggled Jordanian SIM card. They are hosted in a village near the border called Naseeb - as “refugees within Syria” - to facilitate their daily travel to and from the border.
On this day, Mohammad is waiting for them once more.
“I was here yesterday. I am waiting for them again today. If they don’t come today, we’ll find a way of getting them out illegally.”
His children tried splitting up and crossing one by one, but because their passports are brand new, he said, they were turned back on the assumption that they would claim refugee status in Jordan.
“Even with a bribe, we can’t get them out.”
Ghanem says families have had to pay Syrian customs officials bribes of up to 50,000 Syrian pounds (US$873) to cross the border. Others are afraid to even try.
Attacks on buses
Abu Suleiman, of the restive city of Homs’ Hay Ashira neighbourhood, said on 3 March Syrian soldiers shot at the bus he was travelling in towards Jordan, 5km from the border.
“People are afraid to go legally because of attacks on buses crossing the border,” said another refugee who identified herself as Um Fawaz, from the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs.
Ahmed Sharaf, who owns a shop just outside the official border crossing, said traffic had been gradually decreasing. “There is a lot less movement from Syria now.”
Those who come illegally walk 1.5km to get from the Syrian border to the Jordanian border, sometimes carrying injured people. Once on Jordanian territory, the army picks them up and takes them to be registered. They require a Jordanian sponsor to sign for them, and then they are free to enter Jordan.
According to Ali Rashid Shdaifat, head of the Jordan Red Crescent branch in Mafraq, some passport offices in Syria have closed, making it more difficult for Syrians to get passports to travel.
Ahmed* decided to flee Homs after he was twice arrested, detained and, he says, tortured. He tried three times to cross the border into Jordan.
“The first time, they wouldn’t let us out. They said we would protest internationally and make Syria look bad. The last time, when we neared the border, we met people who said people who tried to leave were being targeted: women were being killed, and men electrocuted.”
He had to travel to the capital Damascus to get passports made for his wife and kids. The process took 5-6 days and cost a 25,000 pound ($436) bribe to get authorization to travel, required for all young men in Syria. He asked them to put an old date on the permission letter so it would not be obvious that he was trying to flee recent violence. He says he was accepted for travel only because his son was ill. He arrived in the Jordanian capital Amman on 17 March; his wife was forced to travel the next day.
*not his real name