Wael al-Sahlee’s journey went into reverse pretty quickly.
The 40-year-old Palestinian from Syria had been living in Jordan illegally for three years, having fled the Syrian civil war, when he decided, along with his nine-year-old son Montasser, to travel to Europe.
He booked flights to Sudan, where he was going to join the thousands of people who make the treacherous journey every year across the Sahara in the hope of getting on a boat to Europe.
But on arrival in Sudan, there was an issue with his visa. He and his son were sent back to the United Arab Emirates, where they spent two weeks trapped in Dubai airport. In scenes reminiscent of the Tom Hanks film “The Terminal,” the two slept on benches and washed in public toilets.
Worse was to come. The Emirati government deported him back to Jordan where he was held by the security services, or mukhabarat in Arabic, for over a week, being questioned every day. Eventually they decided to send him back to Syria.
So it was that last week he was only hours from being deported to the war-torn state, where relatives say he would have been detained by the country’s brutal secret police. Al-Sahlee had reasons to be fearful. In 2012, he was jailed for a month after providing medical care to the injured in Yarmouk, a residential camp for Palestinians on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus.
“It’s very dangerous for him because he is wanted. He wants to stay with his family where he is safe,” Thaer al-Sahlee, his brother, told IRIN.
After international pressure, including a UN appeal, al-Sahlee has been given temporary reprieve to remain in Jordan for a week, but still faces expulsion on Thursday if he can't find another country to take him in, according to Thaer. The case has shed light upon Jordan’s policy of forcibly deporting Palestinians from Syria back to the war-torn country.
Until November, it is alleged that Jordan routinely deported Syrian refugees who had broken the law back to Syria. This included those caught working without a permit, despite the fact that to obtain a permit a refugee needs to end their status as an asylum-seeker and pay up to 300 Jordanian dinars ($423) – a fee few can afford.
A damning report by Human Rights Watch helped curtail the process. Most Syrians are now sent to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan instead. However, this is not the case for Palestinians, whose deportations do not appear to have been halted.
Jordan has denied entrance to Palestinian refugees living in Syria since January 2013, although this had already been the unofficial policy for months prior to the official announcement.
“They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis,” Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said in an interview at the time with the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat.
Many people fleeing Syria’s civil war have, however, been smuggled across the border, and Palestinians found to have entered the country illegally have been detained and are often deported back to Syria.
At least 42 Palestinians from Syria have been forcibly deported this year, in addition to 117 in 2014, according to sources familiar with the cases. Rights groups say those deported are at high risk of being arrested and tortured.
Linda Alkalash, director of the Tamkeen program for Legal Aid and Human Rights, said they were concerned about the detention process for both Palestinians and Syrians in Jordan.
“[When they are arrested] there is no investigation into what may have happened. They will arrest people if they find they don’t have the right papers, and the decision to detain them is automatically issued by the governor’s office. There has only been one successful appeal against the detention and that took three years.”
Jordan is not a party to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, but advocates argue that it applies to all nations. Either way, the country has ratified the 1984 UN Convention against Torture, which prohibits the returning of refugees if they are in danger of being abused.
The Royal Hashemite Court, the administrative body between King Abdullah II and Jordan’s government, armed forces and security services, preferred to keep silent on the matter. “The Royal Court does not know about mukhabarat affairs,” an official told IRIN. It was not possible to speak to someone from the Ministry of Interior.
Palestinians from Syria are not allowed to register with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to receive aid, and many say they cannot contact other NGOs for fear of being discovered and stripped of their citizenship and deported. Many aid agencies will not work with them or represent them, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the informal labour market.
Other Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, have also effectively banned Palestinians from Syria from entering.
“It’s extremely bleak,” Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said of the situation facing Palestinians from Syria.
Conditions in Yarmouk are atrocious. More than 100,000 refugees lived there before the war. Since the so-called Islamic State took over part of the huge residential area in April, many have fled, but 18,000 people remain trapped.
“While everyone is talking about Yarmouk being threatened by ISIS, people from Yarmouk are stranded in airports, stuck in border areas and unable to move. There has been so much attention and it has not translated into concrete concerns for the residents of Yarmouk,” Houry said.
Khairunissa Dhala, a researcher and adviser on refugee issues at Amnesty International, said: “While the influx of refugees from Syria has placed Jordan and other countries in the region under immense strain, there is no excuse for abandoning Palestinian refugees who are seeking safety and security in Jordan.”
“The international community should support Jordan in hosting Palestinian refugees from Syria. It should also increase the number of resettlement places available to vulnerable refugees from Syria, including Palestinian refugees.”
And what now for al-Sahlee? His wife has a Jordanian passport but it does not entitle him or their children to stay in Jordan without a residence permit. His brother Thaer said he had been given until Thursday to find a European state to take him or the Jordanian authorities will carry out their threat to send him to Syria.
“This case is troubling in that first of all he had to spend all this time in the airport, stuck with a nine-year-old child, the fact that the Jordanians then nearly deported him, and now no one wants to take him in,” Houry said. “This is a man who has committed no crime. He has got his family and he just wants to live in a place where he and his family can be safe.”
Human rights groups and aid agencies are desperately trying to find a new country for the Sahlee family to settle in. Thaer said Germany had already offered him a visa. Officials at the German embassy in Amman, however, claimed they had no information about this.
“It’s not just a case of Wael and his family,” Thaer said. “It’s a case of all the Palestinians from Syria. They are searching for safety and security, for peace, for a place to live. They are at great risk right now… there is no one helping us, there is no generosity.”
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