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UN-registered Syrian refugees in Jordan return home for visits, unexpectedly lose refugee status: ‘If we had known, we wouldn’t have visited’

Just outside Damascus’ Old City in what was once the sprawling working-class suburb of Jobar, Abdel Rahman* had a home and a family.But it’s been eight years since he last saw that house.

AMMAN: Just outside Damascus’ Old City in what was once the sprawling working-class suburb of Jobar, Abdel Rahman* had a home and a family.

But it’s been eight years since he last saw that house—eight years in which frontlines between the Syrian army and rebel groups formed nearby, and his home neighborhood was almost entirely flattened.

That battle—in Damascus, at least—is now over. Jobar is in ruins.

Now a father of two growing children in Jordan, Abdel Rahman has little desire to move back to a home long lost amid the rubble.

Even if he did try, his meager income from the hummus shop that employs him isn’t enough for the trip back across the border, he told Syria Direct one day last month.

“I have no means of transportation, or any money to go anywhere.”

But eight years away from extended family still in Syria had taken its toll. Abdel Rahman’s wife in particular was missing home more than ever, he says.

And in October last year, the Jordanian government finally agreed to reopen the Jaber-Naseeb land crossing with Syria for the first time since 2015. Shared servees taxis, commercial trucks and private cars were suddenly passing through to Syria in droves.

“When the border opened, I said [to my wife]: ‘Go visit Syria and see your family, maybe your state of mind will improve.’ So that’s what happened.”

Abdel Rahman’s wife stayed in Syria for 20 days before returning to Jordan, he says. But soon after her return, the couple were left blindsided: they went in to the office of UN refugee agency UNHCR to check on their family resettlement process, only to find that their file had been closed altogether.

Their resettlement case would be halted, and food vouchers and other UNHCR services to the family cut off.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have quietly crossed back home since the land border reopened in October—most of them to set up a life there anew, although others have gone back simply to check on their homes on go-and-see visits or see family for the first time in years. 

Jordanian residents watch traffic from a pedestrian bridge a few hundred meters from the entrance to the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing in November. Photo by Madeline Edwards for Syria Direct.

It is a cornerstone of refugee law that a refugee relinquishes their status when they return to their home country. And yet Abdel Rahman is one of several Syrian refugees in Jordan who tell Syria Direct they were not informed of or counseled on longstanding UNHCR policies that would effectively strip them of refugee status if they were to travel home to Syria—even on short visits without the intention of moving back permanently—before returning to Jordan.

They include a young student, elderly grandparents and a stay-at-home mother—all living in urban areas of Jordan where there is generally less exposure to the UN’s refugee agency compared with refugees residing in the country’s internationally supported camps.

All said they received either no information or insufficient information from authorities and UN agencies, including UNHCR, about what would happen to their refugee status before they embarked on their short visits to Syria. They said they were subsequently not informed that their UNHCR files had been “closed” after returning to Jordan.

As governments in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon increasingly encourage supposedly “voluntary” and “informed” returns of Syrian refugees to their home country, the apparent lack of sufficient counseling raises questions about just how informed such returns actually are.

Official information on what return could mean legally is “lacking” for Syrian refugees, says Ghida Frangieh, a Beirut-based lawyer.

Refugees who’ve visited Syria in recent months, meanwhile, say they are now coping with the consequences.

“If we had known [what would happen after going to Syria],” one refugee in Amman tells Syria Direct, “we never would have visited home.”

‘People did not know about this policy’

Jordan’s Ministry of Interior building looms large in the urban landscape of Amman.

Just a few minute’s drive from one of the city’s glitziest new mall developments, it occupies landmark status among those who still drive around the capital without GPS. The roundabout next to it, one of the dozen or so that dot Amman, is known locally as “Interior Ministry Circle.”

It is in this building that Syrians in Jordan must apply for special permission if they are to legally travel outside the country and return to Jordan. At one visit to the ministry in November, Syria Direct found at least a dozen Syrians waiting outside the building who said they were hoping to register return and re-entry for visits abroad.

In January, 28-year-old Meerfat joined them. A university student in Amman, she is studying for her degree thanks to a scholarship provided to UN-registered refugees. Her sister is also enrolled in the same program.

But in recent months, she says, the university made a request of students in her program: to renew their passports in order keep receiving scholarship funds.

A brand new passport from the Syrian embassy in Amman costs more than 10 times what it does back home across the border, Meerfat says.

Back in January, she started weighing the costs. The entire trip to and from her former home in Damascus, as well as new passports there for both her and her sister, would total only half the price of a single passport in Amman.

She went to Jordan’s Ministry of Interior in Amman to get exit and re-entry permissions for the trip. Everything was going as it should.

So she and her mother set out for Damascus. They weren’t the first in the family to go: Meerfat’s father had already been there in November, to scope out the family house.

Nobody had advised them against the trips, Meerfat says. “UNHCR had no role during this process, and there was no meeting with them before the visit to Syria.”

To her surprise, several weeks after returning from Damascus, formerly UN-supplied aid to all members of the family who had visited Syria stopped.

Despite having applied for, and receiving, entry-and-reentry permissions from the Jordanian government, all those who spoke with Syria Direct for this report nevertheless faced legal repercussions upon return: their case files with UNHCR were “closed,” they say, usually one or two months after returning to Jordan from Syria. There was no notification from either the UN or the Jordanian government, they told Syria Direct.

In Meerfat’s case, that meant that her UN-supplied food vouchers, as well as those previously supplied to her mother and father, had stopped. Now, she says, the family only receives vouchers for one person, her sister who has yet to visit Syria.

Others who spoke to Syria Direct also said their UN-supplied aid, including food vouchers, was cut off following visits to Syria—with no direct notification from UNHCR.

“The UN didn’t inform us at all that they were going to cut off our aid,” Meerfat says, adding that she is not alone.  

“A very large number of people did not know about this policy, and if they had known they wouldn’t have gone on visits to Syria.” She counts herself among those who now regret visiting home, and worries her scholarship eligibility could now be under threat.

Meerfat and her sister are now looking for jobs, in addition to their university studies, to make ends meet. They have yet to find anything.

Crossing into Syria

Over 12,000 registered Syrian refugees have returned home from Jordan since the reopening of the land crossing between the two countries last October, according to an op-ed by UNHCR’s Jordan representative Stefano Severe, published on Sunday in the government-owned Jordan Times. Some have reached the border via UNHCR-facilitated transportation, Syria Direct previously reported.

The UN agency is meanwhile “providing refugees with return counseling to address any questions or concerns they have, to make sure that any decision to return is a voluntary decision made by the refugees themselves,” Severe wrote.

But despite facilitating transport to the border for refugees who “expressed a desire to go home,” UNHCR so far has no presence at the border crossing to counsel returnees on their decisions to return, a UNHCR Jordan spokesperson and several refugees who visited home recently tell Syria Direct.

The agency does not help refugees cross, or continue their journeys once they reach the Syrian side.

Before reaching the crossing, refugees who spoke to Syria Direct for this report said they had not been approached by UNHCR for counseling about return.

UNHCR Jordan is providing counseling to refugees who approach them for advice on returns, two representatives of the UN refugee agency told Syria Direct.

One UNHCR spokesperson told UNHCR via email that advice includes “comprehensive discussions informing refugees of their situation once they return and inactivation of their status as a refugee in Jordan.”

When asked whether UNHCR notifies refugees who have been stripped of their refugee status, another spokesperson said the agency works to match the “list of people departing Jordan, which is provided by the Jordanian authorities, with our own system. Those who leave are no longer asylum seekers.”

“If someone goes back to his country, he’s not seeking asylum [anymore] and he’s not a person of concern,” the spokesperson added.

Still, legal experts say the distinction isn’t so clear among refugees themselves.

“There is definitely a lack of information [among refugees], whether about what’s going on inside Syria, or what the consequences [of visiting home] are on their status in the host country,” says Beirut-based lawyer Frangieh. “This is lacking.”

“In light of this lack of information, go-and-see visits cannot be used as a ground to strip refugees from their asylum status without a proper individual assessment of their fear of return and without granting them the opportunity to defend themselves.”

Syrian refugees who have lost their status also lose vital UN assistance, including food vouchers and cash assistance, says Jordanian lawyer Haneen Bitar, a protection trainer at the Justice Center for Legal Aid NGO in Amman.

According to Bitar, loss of those benefits could be push factors that “let [refugees] think about going back home.”

A wedding across the border

The engagement party was set for January 2019.

Seventy-year-old Abu Musaab’s youngest child—and his only daughter—was to join a party of friends and family in a traditional jaha ceremony, common throughout Syria and Arab world, before later marrying her fiance.

But there was one problem: Abu Musaab had been living in Jordan for years, having fled the family’s home in Homs with this three adult sons. His daughter, meanwhile, had remained behind.

It was the city where the father of four lived for decades, and raised his children. By 2011, however, mass protests gave way to war, transforming the Homs into a battleground.

Fighting, bombardment, massacres, car bombs and reported sectarian killings claimed the lives of thousands of residents. Abu Musaab’s family home was ultimately “flattened to the ground,” he recalls.

By late last year, he hadn’t seen his daughter since before the battles that long ago tore apart their home city, and her jaha was coming up. She had no close male family members to take part in the ceremony. So when the long-shuttered Naseeb border crossing finally reopened, Abu Musaab saw his chance.

“I decided to cross, and I visited with her for a week before coming back to Jordan,” he tells Syria Direct from his son’s home in Jordan.

He, too, returned to Jordan from the visit to find his refugee case file closed.

“Of course, before I returned [to Jordan] I didn’t know that UNHCR services would be cut off from me,” says Abu Musaab.

He is now struggling to obtain medicine for his diabetes, and the additional strain of losing food vouchers means he feels he’s quickly becoming a burden on his family.

“To be honest, I’ve started to sense that I’m becoming too dependent on my son, even though he hasn’t complained yet.”

For Abdel Rahman, whose wife visited Syria in recent months, the thought of attending any wedding in Syria is a distant dream. His wife’s niece sent them an invitation to her wedding in the family’s hometown, to take place in the spring.

They declined.

But Abdel Rahman says he and his wife, like other refugees interviewed for this report, are now undergoing an appeals process to reopen their file with UNHCR. They now know the costs of choosing going back home, even if for a short visit.

“When the border opened [in October], my wife said: ‘Thank God, now we have an opening to breathe from and visit Syria for two or three days’. But there isn’t one,” he tells Syria Direct.

“Either we have to sacrifice all of the UNHCR services just for a visit, or we are cut off from our country and its people,” he says.

“If I want to visit, I have to sacrifice everything.”

*Syria Direct changed the names of all refugees interviewed for this report to protect the identities of sources.

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