When refugees from the Syrian war first began to stream into Jordan, the Jordanian Ministry of Interior registered the newcomers and placed them in the care of families, under the kafala system, mainly in the capital of Amman. The kafala or guardianship system has roots in Bedouin customs, but in modern times the term refers to how many Arab states handle migrant workers. A citizen or a company, known as a kafil, sponsors the migrant for a work visa and residency permit. At first this system accepted everyone, regardless of nationality or legal status—including 55 Palestinian families coming from Syria.
The Palestinians in Syria, like those in Jordan who compose nearly half of the country’s population, are refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Those who have fled to Jordan now are twice displaced—and the Jordanian government appears determined not to allow them to settle in the kingdom.
Prior to the conflict in Syria, Palestinians had some freedom of movement between there and Jordan. Many who left Jordan during the 1970s for Syria lost their legal status in Jordan, but retained the option of returning to the kingdom to live or to visit family. After the war erupted, many of these Palestinians requested their Jordanian documents back so they could resettle. The government refused to issue the papers, instead holding the Palestinians at the border for days, or even months. To deflect international condemnation, Jordan permitted Palestinian children under the age of 6 to enter for emergency medical treatment, knowing that many families would not accept separation, or would have their child returned to Syria after recovery. As for the few who managed to get in, the government prohibited them from staying with their Jordanian relatives or kafils, and forced many to return to Syria, in violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement. Others the government sent to Cyber City, a complex in northern Jordan that now serves as a camp especially for Palestinians coming from Syria.
As the Syrian war intensified in 2012, Jordan worked rapidly to construct the huge Zaatari camp, in addition to a few others, to accommodate the influx of refugees. The Syrian nationals resident at Zaatari can still be bailed out of the camp by a Jordanian kafil. At the same time, Jordan stopped accepting any Palestinians from Syria under the kafala system, instead sending those refugees to Cyber City. In mid-2012, sometime in July or August, the government declared that Palestinians from Syria could no longer cross the border at all. In addition, the government asked all families who hosted Palestinians under the kafala system at the beginning of the war in 2011 to present their guests for relocation to Cyber City.
Subsequently, Palestinians entering Jordan from Syria have done so either with forged or insufficient Syrian documents or illegally at unofficial crossings. Some of these people wind up at Cyber City and others are deported. Neither the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) nor the UN Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) is able to supply the exact number of Palestinians who have fled from Syria into Jordan, only an estimate of more than 20,000 as of March 2014.
Cyber City was originally part of a free economic zone launched by King ‘Abdallah II. Now rented by the government, the six-story building can hold up to 480 people, and consists of two units per floor, each with 12 rooms and a communal kitchen. Some 14 relief organizations, including UNRWA, UNHCR, Save the Children, International Relief and Development, and the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation, maintain caravan offices in the environs, where there are also a mosque, two supermarkets, a playground and an activity center. The entire area is under the management of the Ministry of Interior. As of June 2014, the number of refugees in Cyber City was 397, around 90 families—all Palestinians from Syria or Syrians married into Palestinian families.
UNHCR is responsible for the Syrians in the camp, and UNRWA for the Palestinians. The two agencies collaborate to assist refugee families. The Jordanian government has set up a clinic where refugees can get basic medical care, or be transported to a nearby hospital if need be. The government also buses camp children to the closest schools in Ramtha. Save the Children provides various services, such as help with preparation for exams.
Life as a Palestinian refugee in Cyber City is tough. The Palestinians, unlike Syrian nationals, are given no formal identification card that defines their status as refugees. These cards allow refugees some mobility within Jordan as well as access to aid from NGOs and UN organizations. Palestinians are not allowed work permits, either, and therefore cannot get a job, except in extremely rare cases inside the camp as a part of a cash-for-work program. The only income the Palestinians have at this point is food vouchers distributed by UNHCR every two weeks, equivalent to 24 Jordanian dinars (about $33), which the Palestinians cannot cash and can use only at the supermarkets at Cyber City for certain food products. Refugees and a number of organization representatives say that the vouchers almost never cover the needs of families, especially with continuously rising prices.
At the beginning, Palestinian refugees from Syria were able to leave Cyber City and go elsewhere in Jordan. Every month, they were granted two days of “vacation time” to go to the souq (market) or to visit extended family. On special occasions, such as weddings, refugees could ask for a longer period of “vacation time.” All that was required was a form indicating their purpose and destination, and the approval of camp management. The camp was then receiving generous donations, some of which were given to refugees to supplement the vouchers or supply pocket money for “vacation time.” The donations gradually dropped off, however, and so did the number of refugees requesting to leave the camp. Some feel that the outside environment, whether family or the host country itself, is not welcoming.
But the biggest obstacle to freedom of movement is the lack of an official ID card. Checkpoints have multiplied near the borders and between cities in Jordan to apprehend people entering the country illegally. Because Palestinian refugees from Syria have no document identifying them as refugees in Jordan, they face the threat of detention or deportation. In several cases, authorities were presented with the proper vacation form but did not accept it as proof that the refugee was “registered” in Cyber City. These refugees were detained, and when the camp’s directors realized they had not returned from “vacation time,” UNRWA had to intervene, sometimes with the help of camp management, to secure the refugees’ release. These incidents have discouraged Palestinians from requesting “vacation time.” Many fear that one day UNRWA may not be able to protect them from forcible return to Syria.
Another problem facing many Palestinians in Cyber City is the difficulty of obtaining birth and marriage certificates. Early on, Syrian nationals were able to get either document in one or two days, but Palestinians had to wait a minimum of ten days, again because they lacked the requisite ID cards. As the government became stricter, however, sometimes the process now takes months. In addition, UNRWA is no longer allowed to contact the Ministry of Interior directly, but has to use the Foreign Ministry as an intermediary. The reasons for that change are not completely clear, but the most common explanation is that the government considers UNRWA a foreign body within Jordanian borders, similar to embassies and consulates. In June 2014, there were at least five cases of newborns and newlyweds in Cyber City waiting for their certificates. One of the children was already one and a half years old. For registration purposes, UNRWA is able to count her as a Palestinian refugee as long as she is settled in the camp with her family, but if she were ever to move, she would have no legal papers attesting to her nationality. She would be considered stateless under international law. Getting a marriage or birth certificate requires the husband or father to leave Cyber City for more than two days and head to government offices in Amman. But, again, the lack of an ID card makes it risky to leave.
Sadly, many of the people living in Cyber City have been separated from their families. One Palestinian man, for instance, must remain there though his Syrian wife and children live in a Jordanian town. The wife could move into Cyber City, but no one wants to raise children in a refugee camp if they do not have to.
Denied employment and income, Palestinian refugees in Cyber City are bored with life in the camp, and the younger generations are driven into depression, refugee women say. It has become very hard to maintain a family, let alone to start one. The UNHCR vouchers are insufficient and there is no access to higher education. Many refugees say they are living in an open-air prison, and that they would rather return to Syria than stay in Cyber City. The unbearable situation has led a number of youths to attempt suicide or to escape. As of June 2014, the total number of runaways was 45, 30 of whom were found and returned to the camp. Many were able to abscond through the empty construction zones. Others requested their “vacation time” and did not return.
The number one concern for the majority of the refugees is what the future holds for them and their children. It is a question with no answer at present.