Cyber City is an unusual camp beside a desolate crossroads outside Irbid, in northern Jordan. Hidden behind a wall and some pine trees, a dreary six-floor block looks out over rusting machinery and a dry plain. Formerly for migrant workers, it now hosts around 500 refugees from Syria.
After passing security checks I bump into Abu Alaa, a dignified 60-year-old refugee whose two sons are missing in Syria. “No news still,” he sighs, holding my hand warmly. “I was just calling again.” His phone shows repeated unanswered calls to numbers back home. He says his two grown-up sons had tried following him into Jordan but were refused entry due to their Palestinian origin. On separate occasions over the coming months, each appears to have been detained by the Syrian security forces and Abu Alaa fears they may not be alive.
Palestinians have been heavily affected by the violence in Syria. Almost half of the 500,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced. Refugee camps and other areas in which they live, including Dera’a Camp, and Yarmouk and Sayida Zaynab in Damascus, have witnessed heavy fighting. Some 6,000 residents were forced out of Ein al-Tal Camp in Aleppo in April 2013. Sbeineh Camp in Damascus was reportedly hit by a ground-to-ground missile in May 2013, killing at least five people. Two children and two women were among at least five others killed by mortar shells fired into Khan Eshieh Camp near Damascus in June 2013.
Yet Abu Alaa’s sons are among hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria who are believed to have been turned away at the Jordanian border, in violation of international law. While Jordan is hosting around half a million people from Syria, it is generally not allowing access to Palestinian or Iraqi refugees, men travelling alone or people without documents. Given the widespread human rights abuses and violence in Syria, everyone fleeing the conflict should be allowed to seek safety, without discrimination.
Of some 7,000 or more Palestinians who did manage to enter Jordan, either before the country denied all access to them early last year or as a result of using false documents, some were later forced back to the border, also in violation of international law.
Bilal, who entered Jordan ahead of other family members, tells me his father and brothers were detained in Amman and escorted to the border in December 2012. “One night my elder brother rang and told me they had been taken there at gunpoint. My younger brother had been pulled by his hair and forced into the security vehicle that took them there. They waited three days just 100 metres beyond the Jordan border post, with fighting nearby, hoping to be allowed back, until my elder brother was injured and they realized the only option was to seek aid inside Syria.”
A worse fate befell Mahmud Merjan, who Cyber City residents say was killed on a Syrian street in late 2012, three weeks after being forced to sign a “voluntary” paper that he would go back to Syria. “It wasn’t an arbitrary killing,” says one man who knew him well. “He was known and wanted by the regime.”
Sources say there have been attempts to return scores of Palestinians from Syria to the border. International interventions are said to have blocked some of the attempts. Residents of Cyber City tell me that on three occasions relatives have gone onto its roof and threatened to throw themselves off, in apparently successful attempts to stall other cases of refoulement.
All those in Cyber City have fled from Syria. But while the Palestinians from Syria used to be the majority, I am told, their numbers have dwindled as many got fed up with conditions and returned to the conflict zone. “I prefer to go back and die in Syria with some dignity rather than live without it here,” many say.
Complaints about the conditions here are many. Palestinians are not officially permitted to leave Cyber City. Now and again informal permission is granted to visit relatives in Irbid and Amman and so on, but mostly they are confined to the building and the immediate vicinity. Such conditions amount to arbitrary detention. “I’m sorry, but a dog can come and go more easily than we can,” says a very frustrated Ali, who has been here for more than a year.
The closed border to Palestinians and the arbitrary detention of Palestinians is further dividing families, whose identities reflect decades of turmoil and flight. Sena, a Syrian woman, is here with her children while her Palestinian husband is unable to enter Jordan. Ziad is in Cyber City while his Syrian wife and children are in a Jordanian town. Elderly Abu Khaled has to stay here while family members holding Jordanian nationality do not.
While Syrians and Palestinians from Syria appreciate being in safety in Jordan, they struggle to make ends meet. Individuals are entitled to a monthly coupon worth 24 Jordanian dinars (about US$34) which they exchange for food in a small shop next to Cyber City. This works out as a mere 0.80 dinars per day, it is repeatedly pointed out. A 160g tin of tuna on the shop’s shelves costs more than that.
“It is 100 per cent worse for Palestinians here than for the Syrians,” says Ziad. “One, they are allowed to leave this place while we are not and, two, when they go out they can visit charitable organizations, show their UN refugee agency card” – which Palestinians do not have as they fall under the mandate of [the UN Relief and Works Agency] instead, although they should receive the same services – “and collect further relief.”
“Every day here is the same,” Bilal continues. “Eat, sleep, eat, sleep.” With others, he counts off the names of families who have decided to risk their lives to go back into Syria. “Yes, this is what the Jordanian government wants, for us to go back. But what is the alternative? We live without purpose here. This is not life.”
A friend of the deceased Mahmud Merjan summed up the despair: “It was one of our life’s dreams to visit Jordan, but we came and encountered such hate. Let’s hope there are no more refugee camps for Palestinians in heaven.”
NOTE: For security reasons some names have been changed.
A visit to the Za’atri camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan: ‘I wish I could invite you into the beautiful house we had back home’ (Blog, 15 July 2013)
Syria’s internally displaced – ‘The world has forgotten us’ (News story/briefing, 20 June 2013)
More than 1.3 million refugees from Syria in dire need of increased international support (News story/briefing, 24 April 2013)