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The Syrian war and its realities in Jordan

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SR552 million raised in Saudi Arabia for Syrian refugees

Beginning of February 2013

The Syrian war and its realities in Jordan

Written by Lavinia Steinfort, International Unit of ACHRS

The protests of March 2011 against Assad's regime were heavily suppressed by government forces. Months later the uprising had transformed into the armed opposition of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Syrian security forces and the aligned military group Shabiha[1] have been accused of crimes so severe, systematic and deliberate that the international community judges these as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian state is condemned for the unlawful killing of personnel and patients in hospitals, the torture of children, sexual and psychological abuse, wide-scale arbitrary arrests, collective punishment, enforced disappearance, looting, destruction of property, systematic denial of food, water and medical treatment, and a shoot-to-kill policy[2]. However significantly smaller in its scope, the FSA is reportedly responsible for unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment, hostage taking and employing children. Either way, for over 22 months full-out civil war has been the ongoing, mortifying reality of the Syrian people.

Numbers

At present, Assad is seemingly losing control with only the Western strip and the centrally located city of Tadmor under his control. The cities of Damascus, Daraa, Homes and Aleppo remain contested areas[3]. The conflict has affected 4 million people of whom 2,5 million are internally displaced, causing the flight of approximately 1.1 million refugees across the borders. Meanwhile 60,000 Syrians have died according to the UN. Syrian refugees are primarily seeking asylum in Jordan and Lebanon, with an estimate of over 300,000 refugees in each, and Turkey with about 230,000[4]. Despite the importance of assessing the magnitude of the number of people affected, the following article is focused on getting a better understanding of the particular state of affairs in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, mainly concerning Zaatari camp, the treatment of Syrian Palestinian refugees and the domestic and political dimensions of this mass influx. For half of the year Jordan received around 500 refugees daily. October 2012 brought 10,000 Syrian refugees to Jordan, November there were estimated to be a further 10,500 arrivals and another 16,000 in December[5] . Last month’s official statistics show 26,500 Syrians fled to Jordan[6], while the unofficial number is around 30,000. Over the last few weeks the internal violence has escalated, increasing the rate to around 3,000[7] Syrians arriving every day.

Arrival

The humanitarian situation within Syria and of the refugees abroad is alarming. Statistics are neither precise nor up-to-date, but indicate that the violence in Syria is worsening. Official figures are in many instances far below the actual amount, though in some cases numbers are exaggerated in order to secure desperately needed funding. Except for those in Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp Zaatari, little is known about the situation of either the unregistered and urban refugees or of those in the other refugee camps. Last July, Zaatari camp was established 9 kilometers from the Syrian border, with residency strictly reserved for Syrians. If Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin are not forcibly sent back to Syria, then they are confined to the closed camps, Cyber City and King Abdullah Park. In total, one fifth of Syrian refugees are living in camps, while the other 80% have moved elsewhere, for example to Ramtha, Irbid, Mafraq and Amman. In order for Syrians to leave the camps, a Jordanian national must vouch for them first. At present, the majority of refugees are living with host families, however according to a recent report, 65% of the Jordanians disapprove of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country. Low-income families in particular were opposed, possibly dreading further impoverishment.

Zaatari camp

UNHCR is taking care of the Syrian refugees who enter Jordan; in early February, 50,000 refugees had to await registration before they were brought to Zaatari camp. Authority in the camp is given to UNHCR and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization is in charge of its management. Zaatari is said to house about 76,000[8] refugees as of 5 February 2013. On arrival, each person gets four blankets and every tent is provided with a gas heater. In order to eat, one has to go through three tents to get the ration card which can be redeemed for a week’s supply of rice, lentils, oil and vegetables. Access to medical supplies, educational facilities, power, water and food is difficult at times, due to the heightened influx of Syrian refugees creating overcrowding and supply shortages. Over half of the refugees are below the age of 18, resulting in failing school capacities because of over-full classes - sometimes exceeding 60 students a class. When winter kicked in, this overpopulation only worsened the hardships. Heavy rain and snowfall overwhelmed the draining system and flooded the camp in the first half of January, leading to riots which left 11 people injured[9]. Every now and then, protests erupt due to frustration about the situation in Syria, the conditions in the camp and their inability to leave the camp or return home.

Despite these numerous problems, camp entrepreneurs are creating camp economies, with places to drink Syrian coffee, buy clothes and get a haircut - six barbershops have opened up and another 100 shops are operating within the camp. Zaatari already has 11 health centers and a total of 42 doctors which is not superfluous with an average of 5 newborns a day[10]. More disturbing are the cases of men pretending to be aid workers who visit the camp to find a Syrian bride and, in the current situation, 5,000 dollar dowries are hard to resist, which led to 500 underage marriages in 2012[11]. Currently, efforts are being made to dig a new infrastructure[12], suggesting the camp and its residents are there to stay. Regardless, Syrian refugees, like any other refugees, are longing to go home. Over 6,000 Syrians, despite fearing for their lives, have already gone back. Once inside the camp, refugees need a vouching host to leave the camp officially. Even so, 300 refugees unofficially leave the camp daily. The Syrian refugees try to make the best of it, however living in uncertainty about future and the prevalence of waiting to pick up where one was forced to leave off is ever present in the realities of those who fled.

Urban, without registration

Approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees are unregistered at the moment. As previously mentioned, little information is available on the unregistered and urban expatriates. However, the main known difficulties of both groups are lack of heating and, for those who do not stay with a host family, the incapacity to pay the rent. In the autumn of 2012 it was reported that the greater part of urban refugees lived in poverty, with difficult access to nutrition. This proportion presumably increased. Few children are able to continue education due to high costs, discrimination and traumatic war experiences. Female households experience additional hardships; because unaccompanied women carry a social stigma some landlords have refused them housing, leaving them more vulnerable[13]. While most Syrian refugees living outside the camps have shelter, an undetermined number has no choice but to sleep in the streets. It is expected that the refugees outside the camps have increasingly less access to services concerning the bare necessities.

Syrian Palestinian refugees

Before the war 50,000 Palestinian-Syrians were living in Syria of which only 2,000 managed to enter Jordan[14]. In July 2012 the government of Jordan decided to refuse entry to Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin. Human Right Watch (HRW) said that some were threatened with deportation and others were returned by force. Since April, Syrian-Palestinian refugees have faced arbitrary detention in order to send them back to Syria. Syrian refugees of Palestinian descent fled because of the same insecurity and violence as Syrians of other descent but they are neither protected, nor allowed to move freely or to stay at all, unlike the Syrian refugees. When Syrians have someone who can vouch for them they are allowed to move freely and can choose to rent an apartment or live with a host family. The Jordanian government however denies the Palestinian-Syrians this human right of non-refoulement. One Palestinian-Syrian told HMW that he was send back repeatedly until the third time, when those who drove him back heard nearby gunshots finally felt pity and brought him to the refugee center Beshabshe. Another family was fleeing to Jordan because they had relatives in Amman, but the border police said they could not enter and had to return to Syria. Only after the mother fainted because of the shooting sounds they were driven to Beshabshe. The refugee center is the place where UNHCR registers the refugees, at least the Syrian ones. Most Syrian refugees are released from the center within days to move to cities and towns, while Palestinians face indefinite detention or are transferred to be imprisoned in Cyber City[15].

Jordan did not sign the Refugee Convention of 1951, it did however ratify the International Convention for Cultural and Political Rights (ICCPR) which forbids discrimination based on national origin. Jordan’s current refugee policy is treating Syrian-Palestinian refugees differently from other Syrian refugees without proper explanation. According to HRW, any differentiating procedure needs to be justified. Detention can only be justified if the individual proves to be a national threat. A whole group, like the Syrian-Palestinian refugees cannot be ruled out because of their nationality. If so, Jordan breaches the ICCPR. Moreover, Jordan must start to respect international human rights law and customary international law by abiding by the principle of non-refoulement meaning that any refugee must be protected from being forcibly returned to where their life and freedom is in danger. HRW suggested that Jordan should change its policy by accepting Palestinian-Syrian refugees as any other Syrian refugee. So far, no effort has been made in this direction.

Domestic context

Jordanian and international media have repeatedly mentioned the strain of the Syrian refugee influx on the country’s water, food and power resources, and the stretching of health and education services[16], causing further instability. In 2012, unrest within the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan grew increasingly. Economic difficulties made the state turn to the IMF for another loan, assigned under the conditions of liberalizing the economy. The prices of petrol and gas increased significantly due to subsidy cuts, exacerbating the social unrest. The kingdom adapted successfully to Palestinian refugees of the 1948 expulsion, refugees coming from Lebanon in 1975 until the early nineties, and from Iraq before, during and after US invasion. Yet, Jordan’s state and people are getting wary about the continuing increase of Syrian refugees. The state’s concern over securing a ‘Jordanian majority’ is resulting in inhumane actions regarding the Syrian-Palestinian refugees and breaching international law under the terms of the ICCPR. Jordan has also threatened to close the borders if another mass-scale exodus into Jordan occurs[17], which would be another violation of international law. Moreover, poorer segments of society fear that this flood of refugees will mean more economic hardships through a further increase of the unemployment rate and of the expenses of day to day essentials, furthering the difficulties of livelihood even more. These tensions are in particular arising in the north of Jordan.

Rebel Forces

Furthermore, the state is concerned about the influence of Jihadist fighters joining the Syrian rebels and the possibility of a spillover of extremism into Jordan. To illustrate this, the Jordanian Jihadi Salafi leader known as Abu Sayyaf is encouraging Islamic conservatives to join the militant Al Nusra Front[18] and take up arms against Assad’s regime. The intelligence services are keeping a close eye on the Salafis in the country. In hope of favoring non-Jihadi rebels, the government unofficially started to permit light artillery entering Syria through the Kingdom. Previously, Jordan could afford to deny support to the rebels, yet the restrictions on military support for the rebels were loosened when Jordan’s budget deficit and refugee expenses increased in the late summer because the trade routes to Jordan became blocked[19]. With the covert help of the Jordanian border patrol, weapons (paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are being smuggled into Syria, according to the rebel forces. Support for the rebels must remain covert, since Jordan fears a potential retaliation from Assad’s regime. Besides, the intelligence services are regularly meeting rebel leaders in order to facilitate FSA’s new military strategy. This involvement corresponds with the growing anxiety of Jordan and its Western allies that the wave of Jihadi fighters will incite greater regional turmoil.

Conclusion

The war within Syria is worsening, which leads to an ongoing increase of Syrian refugees that enter Jordan. The socio-economic situation in Jordan is under more and more pressure, meaning further insecurity for both Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees, and the Jordanian population. In order to secure stability it is of the utmost importance that Jordan keeps its border open to all Syrian refugees regardless of their origin. Since, discriminating Palestinian Syrian refugees is a political act of power that is not in the best interest of the population of which over 60% has Palestinian origins. Palestinian Jordanians have been subjected to discrimination in relation to a deteriorating economy. For the instable and discriminatory situations to improve, all refugees and citizens must get fair treatment and equal chances in order to turn the wheel and build Jordan's future.

Authorities must put an end to discriminating against Syrian refugees of Palestinian descent as it is against international human rights law. Amman Center for Human Rights Studies (ACHRS) wants to urge the Kingdom to apply an indiscriminate refugee policy, where all refugees are treated in a humane, equal and legitimate way. For national and regional stability in both the long and short term, Jordan’s political and media arenas should take an inclusive stance on all entering refugees in order for the population to follow suit. When the international community truly cares about the humanitarian situation of all Syrian refugees, it will only give Jordan the financial support if the government adopts a legitimate refugee policy regarding all refugees who escape Syria.

Source picture: http://www.iinanews.com/en/index.php/humanitarian/952-sr552-million-raised-in-saudi-arabia-for-syrian-refugees