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Trapped - Palestinian refugees from Syria talk to Amnesty International

By Noor Al-Bazzaz

It was the shelling that finally drove Abu al-‘Izz to flee his native Syria. In the Bashabsheh transit camp in al-Ramtha he says: “I could not bear the shelling any longer, I had to leave to save my family”. We got the same response from Syrians and Palestinian refugees also fleeing the violence in Syria whom I met in Jordan.

In the past two weeks hundreds of refugees from Syria have reportedly entered Jordan daily, mostly from Dera’a governorate. Almost everyone I spoke to said they were smuggled out of Syria and delivered to Jordan’s unofficial border crossings by the Free Syrian Army.

The journey they say is long and dangerous, often paved with snipers and check points. Mothers spoke of giving their children sleeping medicine so that they do not make a noise during the journey and attract attention from security forces.

A woman tells me: “There were three hundred of us leaving that night, if my baby cried she could have caused three hundred deaths.” Holding her baby up to me, she laughed. ”Can you imagine this little one responsible for three hundred lives?”

The decision to leave Syria appeared to have been thoroughly calculated by everyone I spoke to – weighing up the risks of the journey against the probability of reaching safety in Jordan, which borders the governorate of Dera’a.

For Palestinian refugees leaving Syria, however, the risk of the journey could well be outweighing the prospect of safety and stability in Jordan, amid reports of restrictions on them at the Jordanian borders and inside the transit camps.

If so, this could be leaving many Palestinians trapped under shelling in Syria with nowhere to go.

For Syrian refugees, if they are able to secure a Jordanian national as their guarantor, they may have the opportunity to be ‘bailed out’ of the transit camps in al-Ramtha, a small town in north Jordan near the border with Syria.

But since April 2012, the guarantor system ceased to apply to Palestinian refugees coming from Syria, leaving around 140 Palestinians detained in the CyberCity camp in Jordan.

A Syrian woman ‘Laila’, who is married to a Palestinian man, tells me that while she can be bailed out, she cannot leave CyberCity camp because her daughter is considered Palestinian and, is therefore, not covered by the guarantor system.

Her husband meanwhile is being treated at a hospital in Irbid for injuries sustained during shelling in Dera’a. She tells me that in order to visit her husband, she is accompanied by police from the camp. “It is humiliating, I feel like a criminal. I am embarrassed; I tell people the police are there for my own protection.”

Like many other Syrian refugees, ‘Laila’ tells me she hopes to return to Syria if Bashar al-Assad’s government is toppled, but in the meantime she longs to live in a home with her daughter and husband.

A few hours later I see the school bus returning children back to the camp; ‘Laila’ is one of several women waiting for the bus. She embraces her daughter and they walk back to their room. The scene resembled any ordinary school run yet there was something fundamentally sombre about it.

Um Mustafa, a Jordanian woman married to a Palestinian refugee from Dera’a, shares a similar story. She tells me she is free to leave the CyberCity camp, but points to the infant in her lap and says she would have to leave her Palestinian daughter too. Restlessly, Um Mustafa tells me ‘I know this issue is political, but there must be a solution, how long can we live like this?’

While some of the Palestinians have fled from a variety of different neighbourhoods in Syria, a significant number of those in Jordan fled from the Palestinian refugee camp just north of Dera’a city. In the past several months, the camp has reportedly been targeted repeatedly by mortar rocket attacks, military raids and has been a regular site for clashes. One Palestinian man spoke emotionally about the shelling of the Quds mosque inside the camp at the end of June.

However, despite the increasing violence in Dera’a governorate, the number of Palestinians entering Jordan appears to have dropped significantly, in contrast with the increase in other refugees coming from Syria.

This is possibly a sign that Palestinians in Syria have been dissuaded by the severe restrictions imposed on the Palestinians who made it Jordan. There are also worrying reports of Palestinians being refused entry at the Jordanian border.

A Palestinian man ‘Ahmed’, born and raised in the Dera’a refugee camp, tells me ‘I feel a deep pain in my heart. Everyday I wait to hear news that one of my friends or relatives in Dera’a have been martyred’.

‘Ahmed’ entered Jordan prior to April 2012 and is now residing in Irbid; he says he knows of Palestinian families who have tried to flee Dera’a to escape intense shelling and military operations. Some, he reports, have become internally displaced in surrounding areas while others, realising they had no other choice, returned to the Dera’a camp. His own family remains trapped there.

An overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and isolation began to resonate the more we spoke to Palestinian refugees from Syria. At the end of our meeting, ‘Ahmed’ offered us his relatives’ contact details. He said, “Please, even if you cannot change anything, keep in contact with them so that at least they know that there are people watching this issue. You cannot imagine what it feels like to be alone and trapped.”

Read more:

Syrian forces and armed groups will be held criminally responsible for war crimes (News story, 20 July 2012)
Syria: Security Council vote will embolden violators (News story, 19 July 2012)
One family’s dramatic escape from Syria (Blog, 20 February 2012)
Syria: ‘The man they were shooting at is actually my husband’ (Blog, 18 February 2012)
Syria: ‘How much blood must we pay before the world helps?’ (Blog, 17 February 2012)
Eyes on Syria (Interactive map)