Middle East

Aid officials report spike in Jordan deportations of Syrians

Life as a refugee in Jordan suddenly ended for a Syrian carpenter when he was summoned for interrogation, blindfolded and sent on a bus back to Syria with his wife and four children the next morning.

After more than four years in Jordan, the 31-year-old is back in a war zone where he fears for his family's safety and struggles to find work. He hasn't heard from parents left behind in Jordan, presumably because they fear the same fate if they make contact.

"Everyone is afraid," he said by Skype from Syria's Daraa province.

Deportations from Jordan have spiked in recent months, with entire Syrian families sent back for the first time, including large numbers of children, said two international aid officials. One official said that more than one-third of several thousand refugees who went back to Syria between January and April were forcibly deported, while others returned voluntarily.

The international group Human Rights Watch said it has documented "numerous cases" since 2014 of Jordan forcibly returning Syrian asylum seekers to Syria. In many cases, the deportations violate international law which bars returning people to situations where they face danger or persecution, said Lama Fakih, deputy director of the group's Middle East and North Africa division.

Turkey and Lebanon, two other main refugee host countries alongside Jordan, have also deported asylum seekers, she said.

A Jordanian government official confirmed that deportations have taken place, but said refugees are only sent back on security grounds, after an investigation. He would not give a total since the beginning of the year.

The official and the aid agency employees spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the deportations, a contentious issue between Jordan and the international community.

Eight deportees interviewed by The Associated Press on WhatsApp or Skype said they were expelled without due process or apparent reason, or were targeted because they spoke to relatives who live in areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State extremists.

Returning refugees to war zones violates international law, especially when it is done without due process and includes family members, said Jeff Crisp, a former official at the U.N. refugee agency.

Refugees can lose their protected status if they are involved in violent or subversive activity, but only after an investigation, Crisp said.

Some 5 million Syrians fled their country since the outbreak of conflict there in 2011. Close to 660,000 are registered as refugees in Jordan. Syria's neighbors have effectively closed their borders, overburdened by the initial influx of refugees and wary of risks to security.

Donors and aid groups rely on Jordan's goodwill to operate there and have limited leverage when trying to prevent deportations, especially given the growing threat of IS, which controls part of Syria and Iraq.

Jordan, part of an international anti-IS military coalition, is increasingly concerned about the domestic threat posed by the militant group's supporters.

The aid officials said the recent rise in deportations is apparently linked to a security crackdown launched after IS militants killed 10 people in a series of attacks in Jordan in December.

Two of the deportees interviewed by the AP said they had already been approved for resettlement to the United States and were undergoing health and background checks. One is a 30-year-old woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis and requires medical treatment; the other a 40-year-old woman who said she was deported along with 33 relatives.

Most of the deportees insisted on anonymity because they still have relatives in Jordan, and said they fear their exposure will lead to the deportation of family members. Some provided records of refugee registration and other documentation to back their stories.

A 40-year-old man said he believes he got on the radar of the Jordanian security forces because he had an argument with a mosque preacher over Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He was questioned and deported in December 2015.

The man's wife and five children at first stayed in Jordan, but then went to Syria in November 2016 because they couldn't survive without him.

Life in Daraa is tough. "There's no work. There's no money. There's no safety," he said.

International aid officials said they intervened successfully in some cases, preventing deportations of refugees who had been caught working without permits or had left Jordan's three refugee camps without proper procedure.

They said they can do little in alleged security cases, especially outside the camps where more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees live.

The Jordanian official said refugees are only deported on security grounds, such as suspected contact with militant groups. He denied that entire families were deported, saying that if men are sent back to Syria their families often follow to avoid separation or losing the breadwinner.

He said Jordan has the right to protect itself and to expel those it considers a security threat. He said the country is compliant with international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch said Jordan has illegally deported vulnerable persons, including war-wounded and children.

"Even in cases where individuals are being deported on security grounds, those individuals should be afforded an opportunity to appear before tribunals so that they can raise their concerns," said Fakih. "In all cases, if an individual does have a fear of persecution, he should not be returned."

Southern Syria is an area of active conflict where civilians are under targeted attacks as well as indiscriminate bombings, she said.

The Syrian carpenter who was deported in February had spent more than four years in Jordan. In the kingdom, he had worked in a woodshop while his children attended a local school.

During interrogation by the intelligence services, he was asked for the names of all his relatives and anyone he was in touch with across the border.

The man said he wasn't told why he was being deported.

A 29-year-old woman said she was sent back to Daraa after being accused of speaking to relatives with suspected IS ties.

"They don't give you a chance to prove or protest if you did or didn't do anything," she said.

Her family is constantly on the move in the rebel-held area of Daraa because of escalating airstrikes, she said. They face shortages of food, electricity and water.

"We were never expecting to come back here," she said. "They sent us from security to death."