Since the beginning of the Syrian popular uprising-turned-civil war, well over 5 million Syrians have fled the country in search of safety. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey, there are currently 5,233,712 registered Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa. An additional 6,300,000 estimated refugees are internally displaced in Syria itself and another 1,000,000 have sought asylum in Europe and North America.
In the Middle East, most Syrian refugees have taken refuge in Lebanon (roughly 1.5 million) and Turkey (roughly 3 million). Jordan, however, is not far behind. According to the United Nations, Jordan currently hosts 655,000 registered (UNHCR) Syrian refugees in cities, towns, and refugee camps across the country. Jordanian authorities insist that the total number is in the 1.4 million range (up to 20% of the country’s population).
Many have argued that Jordan should be commended for (and assisted in) its efforts to take in and support Syrian refugees. This is especially true, since Jordan is a small country that lacks major economic/natural resources and is dependent on external aid and sources of income. According to the World Bank, the refugee influx is costing the country an estimated USD $2.5 billion annually (that is, 6% of its GDP and one-fourth of the government’s annual revenues). In the meantime, unemployment remains high and most Jordanians are experiencing a noticeable and steady decline in living conditions. Already structurally vulnerable, the country has struggled to keep up with increasing demands for essential services since 2011, such as schooling, water, and electricity. Jordan has, nevertheless, taken steps to open job centers and classrooms for Syrian refugees.
As a result, many have described the refugees as a “burden” that Jordan has been good enough to accept. While there is certainly some truth to this narrative, the image of an overextended, hospitable Kingdom hides the many unacceptable ways the Jordanian government is treating Syrian refugees.
On October 2, 2017, New York City-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on how Jordanian authorities have summarily deported thousands of registered refugees back to Syria since the beginning of 2017. According to the report, from January to May 2017, Jordan deported roughly 400 refugees per month to Syria, including collectively expelling entire families.
International humanitarian workers inside the country argue that the expulsions, which began to spike in the later months of 2016, are part of a security crackdown that followed a pair of high-profile, armed attacks on Jordanian forces in the country. The first occurred in June 2016 outside a refugee camp near the border-city of Rukban, while the second took place in Karak in December 2016. According to the HRW report, however, refugees are being driven out of the country arbitrarily, without explanation or evidence of any wrong-doing. Syrian refugees interviewed by HRW (thirty-five currently in Jordan and thirteen recently deported to Syria) claim they did not have an opportunity to appeal their expulsion or seek legal counsel.
In addition, according to Jordanian aid workers on the ground, the decision to deport refugees appears to have been made by several institutions in the country for different reasons that do not necessarily reflect security-based concerns. Indeed, according to Issa al-Mazareeq at the National Center for Human Rights in Amman, expulsion orders have been issued to Syrian refugees for “minor violations.”
The deportation campaign is thus raising fears that the Kingdom is targeting refugees to deflect attention away from pre-existing national challenges, namely high unemployment rates and sluggish economic growth. The government faced popular protests throughout 2017 for imposing tax increases on food items, services, and fuel prices. The decision, which has impacted poor and middle-class families, was enacted in order to reduce the state budget after signing an economic reform agreement with the International Monetary Fund in 2016.
Whatever the reasoning behind the government campaign, by deporting refugees back to Syria, Jordanian authorities are putting thousands of already vulnerable refugees at risk of torture or death. Hopefully, the HRW report will lead to popular pressure on the government to cease this inhumane practice, sooner rather than later.