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Jordan returns refugees to desolate Syrian border camp, rights groups cry foul

‘These deportations have happened with no fair trial or due process.’

Children play football in Rukban
Children play football in Rukban, a camp of some 10,000 people on the Syria-Jordan border, 7 September 2020. (Omar al-Homsi/TNH)

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The Jordanian authorities have over the past few months deported dozens of Syrian refugees to a desolate camp on the Syria-Jordan border, despite deteriorating conditions and accusations from rights groups that the returns are a breach of international law.

Jordan has been sending refugees back to Syria for years, but this is the first time it has been accused of forcible transfers to the desert no man’s land, known as Rukban.

“People with security issues or other problems [in Jordan] have been deported” to Rukban, starting in July, a member of the camp’s administrative council told The New Humanitarian by phone, requesting anonymity out of fear for his safety.

The source could not provide the exact number, but Mahmoud al-Hmeili, a spokesperson for one of the councils that help govern the settlement, told TNH that 39 people had been sent to Rukban from inside Jordan in the past two and a half months. Most had not remained for long, opting instead to travel on into Syria, al-Hmeili said.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Amnesty International said at least 16 Syrian refugees had been “forcibly transferred” to Rukban on 10 August alone.

Tens of thousands people began arriving at Rukban in 2015, most having travelled long distances across the desert to flee fighting and the so-called Islamic State. They had hoped to seek refuge in Jordan, but Amman put a halt to almost all new arrivals after a car bomb attack in 2016 killed several border guards. 

By mid-2016 there were estimated to be some 70,000 people in and around Rukban, but that number has since dwindled to around 10,000. With aid sparse and food prohibitively expensive, many refugees agreed to be evacuated by the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to parts of Syria controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But others, having come from parts of the country that rose up against the government, have said they are fearful of what awaits them upon return, including the possibility of forced conscription into the army. Some have chosen to stay despite the desperate conditions.

Several sources, all of whom declined to be named, told TNH that the recent deportees, or at least members of their families, had been accused or convicted of crimes in Jordan. But the two deportees who spoke to TNH said they weren’t sure why they had been sent to Rukban: Both said they had been living in the UN-assisted Azraq camp in northern Jordan when they were moved, and asserted that they had no criminal history in Jordan, nor any security issues.

Either way, watchdog groups say the deportations are a violation of refugees’ rights. Jordan is not a signatory to the main treaty governing refugees, the 1951 Refugee Convention, but sending a refugee back to likely harm – known as refoulement – is prohibited under customary international law. Jordanian officials “shouldn’t deport them; it’s still a human rights violation regardless of what [the refugees] are accused of,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch. 

“As far as I understand, these deportations have happened with no fair trial or due process. People weren't provided with the opportunity to respond to accusations or prove that returning [to Syria] wouldn't risk their lives,” Kayyali said, speaking to TNH by phone. She said she could confirm that six people had been deported to Rukban from Jordan since July.

“Even if there’s a national security risk, Jordan is obligated to give people they are deporting an opportunity to make their case,” Kayyali added.

An official from Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to phone calls and a written request for comment. A human rights liaison for the Jordanian government also failed to respond to a request for comment.

“Even if there’s a national security risk, Jordan is obligated to give people they are deporting an opportunity to make their case.”

A spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency told TNH it was “aware that refugees were deported from Jordan back to Syria due to security reasons”. 

“UNHCR has discussed the matter with the government of Jordan and continues to emphasise the principle of non-refoulement… UNHCR continues to monitor the situation closely,” the spokesperson said, adding that four “deportations” to Rukban occurred in July, while another 30 people were deported in August. 

‘I don’t know why this happened’

Jordan, which is home to more than 650,000 registered refugees, has been quietly deporting asylum seekers for several years.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch report found that the Jordanian authorities were deporting hundreds of registered Syrian refugees per month, often without letting deportees know why they were being sent back. These people were returned via the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing between northwestern Jordan and Syria’s Deraa province.

Among those sent to Rukban in recent weeks was Muhammad, a young man originally from Deraa. He said he was deported in early August from Azraq, where he had been living since fleeing Syria in 2014. His father, stepmother, and four young siblings joined him on the journey to Rukban.

After arriving in Rukban, Muhammad and his family shared a mud-walled house with a displaced man who had previously been living alone. It was the only accommodation they could find.

TNH spoke to Muhammad in mid-August in the mud shelter, near the camp’s makeshift marketplace where they were dropped off after being deported. An acquaintance was cooking dinner in the rudimentary kitchen – a gas burner beside a small table storing jars of olive oil and other basic food supplies. 

“I still don’t know the reason [why this happened], and nobody has investigated it with us,” Muhammad said. He requested a pseudonym be used as he was planning on making his way to government-held territory in Syria, where his mother still lives. “Even if they conscript me to compulsory military service, I want to go back to Syria,” he said.

Muhammad denied he had been accused of criminal activity, but TNH could not independently verify his account. Amnesty interviewed the father of a deportee of the same age as Muhammad who said his son had been accused of “stealing materials used in building caravans” in Azraq camp. It was unclear if the person the rights group interviewed was Muhammad, who headed towards government-controlled Syria two weeks after speaking with TNH, leaving his phone behind in Rukban. TNH has been unable to contact him since.

Another recent deportee, Abu Ali, also told TNH he had committed no crimes while in Jordan, where he also lived in Azraq. He, too, requested that his real name not be published to protect his safety should he follow Muhammad into government territory. 

Abu Ali, also originally from Deraa, feared he may have been deported due to a mistaken criminal report against him, but he said the Jordanian authorities gave him no reason for his deportation. 

Cut off from aid and medical care

Summers in Rukban – situated amid a largely empty, vast stretch of desert – are fiercely hot and ripe for the spread of diseases, while the bitterly cold and rainy winters have killed displaced infants and children and turned makeshift dirt streets to mud. 

The camp sits on the Syrian side of an eastern border zone named the “berm”, immediately after the earthen barriers marking the boundary line with Jordan. Before the war, the area was home only to a remote stretch of the Damascus-Baghdad highway, while a handful of nomadic herders and traders sometimes passed through. The nearest villages, hospitals, and schools are dozens of kilometres away, across a desert now pockmarked with pro-government militia checkpoints.

The US-run Tanf military garrison sits just outside the camp, and serves as a base for the Mughawir al-Thawra Syrian rebel group. The patch of desert immediately surrounding the garrison, as well as Rukban itself, are nominally rebel-controlled. Outside that zone is Syrian government territory.

“We in the camp have gotten used to this hunger. We’ve gotten used to this weather, this environment, this desert.”

Aid deliveries are scarce and in the past included some parcels delivered across the border by crane. The last official shipment, a joint UN-SARC convoy carrying food parcels and other supplies, entered Rukban a little more than a year ago. 

Residents have been forced to rely on smuggled goods – from fresh produce to medicine and cleaning supplies – trucked across the desert. Water is piped across the border by the UN.

A UN-run medical clinic just across the border in Jordanian territory has been inaccessible to camp residents since mid-March because of COVID-19 restrictions. The clinic was seeing about 2,000 patients a month in February, and was – for the vast majority of residents – their only access to doctors and medical treatment beyond basic first aid. 

No cases of COVID-19, which is spreading in both Syria and Jordan, have yet been found in Rukban, but on Tuesday UNHCR reported that two refugees had tested positive for the virus in Azraq camp, where the two deportees TNH spoke to came from. A UNHCR spokesperson declined to comment on whether COVID-19-related precautions were being taken with deportees. 

“Thank God we don’t have corona here yet,” said Shukri Shihab, a nurse and camp resident who runs a rudimentary clinic in the settlement. Should it enter, there are “no capabilities at all” to treat the virus, he said. 

“Medicine isn’t entering the camp,” Shihab explained. “Only very, very small amounts brought in by smugglers transporting sheep who pay bribes at regime checkpoints.” The nurse worried about the risk of childhood malnutrition as smuggled-in food supplies were scarce and expensive, and he said skin diseases and other illnesses were already rampant.

On Friday, plumes of dust blustered through the camp. In one video posted online (which could not be independently verified), sand blew across the canvas roofs of makeshift homes in Rukban, casting an orange glow. 

“We in the camp have gotten used to this hunger,” al-Hmeili, the council spokesperson, told TNH by phone about the conditions in Rukban. “We’ve gotten used to this weather, this environment, this desert.”

But for Abu Ali, one of the new deportees, life in Rukban is far worse than it was in Jordan. Watching from afar, his home in Deraa also appears too dangerous for him and his family, as tit-for-tat killings and violence continue there between rebels and pro-government forces.

He said he had decided to stay in Rukban for now, albeit with reservations: “If things stay this bad in Rukban, with rising prices, with everything how it is, I’ll have no choice but to go into Syria.” 

Omar al-Homsi is a pseudonym used by one of the authors for security reasons.

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