HomeTop StoriesThey fled the devastating civil war in Syria. Now Syrian refugees...

They fled the devastating civil war in Syria. Now Syrian refugees in Jordan fear being forced to return

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — As Jordan hosted regional talks this spring to end Syria’s isolation after more than a decade of civil war, Syrian refugee Suzanne Dabdoob felt a deep pressure in her brain and ears, she said, a fear she hadn’t felt since arriving in Jordan a decade ago.

Ahead of the meeting, Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to allow 1,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan to return home safely – a test case for the repatriation of much larger numbers. The top Jordanian diplomat only spoke about voluntary return. But panic spread through the working class in eastern Amman, where Dabdoob and many other Syrians have built a new life in multi-story cement block buildings.

“I would rather die here than go back to Syria,” said 37-year-old Dabdoob, whose home was destroyed by airstrikes in the Syrian city of Homs.

She fled to Amman with her five children, her accountant husband, who evaded military service, and her sister, who she said was wanted for quitting her government job.

“We are afraid that the Jordanian government will put pressure on us, even indirectly, to leave,” she said.

As countries in the Middle East pressured by large numbers of refugees restore relations with Assad, many Syrian refugees are now terrified at the prospect of returning to a country devastated by war and controlled by the same authoritarian leader who brutally crushed the 2011 uprising.

Even as public hostility and economic woes in neighboring countries have put pressure on Syrian refugees, few are clamoring to return. The number of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon has remained about the same over the past seven years, according to UN figures.

Hoping to speed up their exodus, Lebanon and Turkey have deported hundreds of Syrians since April in what rights groups consider a violation of international law.

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Now Jordan, a close American ally widely praised for its acceptance of millions of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, is also changing.

The “Jordan Initiative,” unveiled in May to encourage cooperation with Assad on refugee returns and illicit drug trafficking, capped the country’s painful transformation, proponents say, from one of the world’s most accommodating hosts to one of the strongest advocates for sending refugees home.

“Jordan has long said that refugees are welcome. But now the official rhetoric is more focused on supporting their return,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a cause for great concern.”

Human rights groups say it is still too unsafe for refugees to return to Syria given the risks of arbitrary detention, disappearance and extrajudicial killings there. Even the most fortunate returnees are facing breadlines, currency collapse and power shortages after a 12-year conflict that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the pre-war population of 23 million.

“My family tells me there’s no more war, sure, but there’s nothing left either,” said Mohammed, a 34-year-old carpenter who fled Syria in 2013 and opened a hand-carved wooden furniture shop in Amman, identical to his father’s workshop in Damascus.

Mohammed gave only his first name for security reasons and said he hoped never to return, citing stories of Syrian security forces arresting returnees to extort thousands of dollars in bribes from their families. His two daughters, 4 and 10, know no other home.

“Here I know what it’s like to live with dignity,” he said.

With its reputation as a humanitarian center — an oasis of relative stability in an unstable Middle East — the kingdom is currently home to an estimated 1.3 million of the region’s 5.2 million Syrian refugees, according to government figures.

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While Jordanian security forces have not stepped up deportation raids in recent months, the government has expelled tens of thousands of Syrians over the years, mostly for alleged crimes or for failing to register with authorities. With rising unemployment and inflation fueling anti-refugee sentiment among Jordanians and the government speaking more openly about return, that history is now troubling Syrian refugees in the country.

“Almost all of us know someone who has been kicked out for a reason we don’t understand,” says Dadoob, whose friend, she said, was shot and killed by government forces in the southern Syrian city of Daraa after being deported in 2016. Jordanian security forces accused him, and many others, of communicating with extremist and opposition groups in Syria, according to human rights groups.

“With the overreach of security services in Jordan and in the region, there is now a lot of distrust,” said Samer Kurdi of the Collateral Repair Project, which provides aid to refugees in Amman. “Embracing Assad again doesn’t make sense for Syrians here.”

Since Assad attended his first annual Arab League summit in 13 years this spring, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has described his country’s hopes for the return of refugees as an inevitable consequence of Assad’s rehabilitation.

For Jordan, a large displaced population that has resided in the country for generations presents the sobering prospect of the country’s 2.2 million Palestinians.

The experience of those refugees, whose families fled or were displaced during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, has taught Jordan that the longer refugees stay, the less likely they are to return, said Hassan Momani, a professor of international relations at the University of Jordan.

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“There is a fear in Jordan’s collective memory,” he said.

Jordan’s foreign and information ministries declined to comment on the issue of Syrian refugee returns, citing only recent public statements.

“We are way beyond our capacity. We are sounding the alarm,” Safadi told a conference on Syria in Brussels last month.

Earlier this month, he visited Damascus and held talks with Assad. “What we are sure of is that the future of refugees lies in their country,” he said.

Few Syrians who fled the war to Jordan seem to agree. Only a small number of Syrian refugees in Jordan will return home voluntarily: 4,013 people in 2022, up from 5,800 in 2021, according to United Nations figures.

A UN Refugee Agency survey of some 3,000 Syrian refugees across the region in February found that only 1.1% of refugees plan to return to Syria in the coming year, while most say they hope to return one day. Only 0.8% of respondents in Jordan said they plan to return within the next year.

“This is an important indication that conditions are currently not conducive to return,” said Dominik Bartsch, the UNHCR representative in Jordan.

While the Jordanian government maintains that all refugee returns are optional, the line between voluntary and forced returns can be blurred.

After 2016, when Jordan closed its border with Syria following a cross-border suicide bombing, authorities refused to allow short-term Syrians to return to Jordan. In other cases, refugees were deported for alleged labor violations, and then their relatives who followed them to Syria because of their loss of income were registered as voluntary returnees.

“What we see now, 12 years later, is that most of the Syrians in Jordan who really want to return are elderly,” says Kurdi, the local lawyer. “They return to die.”

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