The first three planes carrying 430 refugees took off Friday morning, UNHCR Jordan spokeswoman Aoife McDonnell told the Associated Press. The rest will be flown out later on Friday, government spokesman Mohammed Momani told reporters.
Momani has said the refugees were being deported because they had arrived in Jordan under the false pretext of seeking medical treatment. Many asylum seekers capitalize on Jordan’s relatively lax medical visa policy to get through the gates, before heading to U.N. headquarters to make their asylum claim.
But refugee advocacy groups and members of the Sudanese community in Jordan accuse the government of merely being fed up with the Sudanese protests, which have flared off and on for over a year. They say Jordan is shirking its humanitarian duty to protect asylum seekers, regardless of how they made their way to Jordan.
The UNHCR’s Mohammed Hawari said on Wednesday that it was well within Jordan’s right to break up the protest, noting that the raid proceeded peacefully. But he said the agency was “trying everything we can to convince Jordanian authorities not to deport the refugees back to Sudan.”
On Thursday evening, however, several of the refugees still in the barracks told Al Jazeera that they were tear gassed by Jordanian security forces after a scuffle broke out between refugees and police. The refugees said several people had been injured and sent to the hospital. Al Jazeera was not able to independently confirm that claim or reach the Jordanian security directorate to respond to the allegation.
Jordan has not signed the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Refugee, which would forbid the government form sending refugees back home. But legal experts say the deportation does appear to violate the international principle of non-refoulement, which bars any country from handing people over to a country they fear will persecute or torture them.
“This prohibition applies to all countries as an unquestionable principle of international law whether they have signed the refugee convention or not and regardless of how they entered their country,” said Betsy Fisher, deputy policy director and staff attorney for the International Refugees Assistance Project, an U.S. group that provides legal representation to refugees. “The Convention against Torture, which Jordan has signed, prohibits the forcible return of people to places where they fear torture. That is exactly the fate that these Darfuri Sudanese refugees have fled.”
The UNHCR has registered more than 3,500 Sudanese in Jordan, most of whom are refugees or asylum seekers from the Darfur region. The U.N. estimates that over 300,000 people have been killed in fighting in Darfur since 2003. And although a ceasefire is in place, political violence remains common. The International Criminal Court is pursuing the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes, though he has managed to escape the court’s arrest warrant.
The Sudanese protest movement in Jordan began in late 2014, with members of the community accusing Jordanian authorities of unwarranted violence and racial discrimination – a charge that has been widely reported by rights groups.
But the Sudanese also say the UNHCR has failed to provide them with adequate protection and material support. Their broad accusation is that the U.N. prioritizes aid and resettlement for Syrian and Iraqi refugees because they are deemed to be in greater need. The Sudanese, who like all refugees in Jordan are banned from working, say they have no recourse for supporting themselves, lack access to healthcare, and are often turned down by the UNHCR when they apply for cash stipends.
“The life here is very difficult for us, because as you know, Jordan is very expensive and there is not enough assistance from the UNHCR,” said Sara Sulimon, a young mother who had camped out with her children at the protest this week.
The UNHCR has repeatedly denied those allegations, noting that aid is extremely limited for Jordan’s more than 700,000 registered refugees, and that it is apportioned based solely on need. The agency has noted that many Sudanese refugees in Jordan are single men, and may therefore be deemed lower priority for aid than female-headed households, for example. It also says Sudanese are resettled outside the country at a comparable rate to Syrians, though that rate is very low.
“Many groups feel they’ve been forgotten or left behind, but the amount of support we provide to Sudanese is actually fairly commensurate with the population,” Andrew Harper, the UNHCR’s top representative in Jordan, told Al Jazeera last year. “There’s no doubt the world’s attention is on the Syrians, but that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about Sudanese or Somalis or Iraqis.”
Human Rights Watch has received numerous allegations of refugees being deported back to their home countries from Jordan in the past, including Syrians. Last year, several Sudanese community leaders told the HRW researcher in the country, Adam Coogle, that they were opposed to the idea of protesting in the first place because they knew the government had a proclivity for deporting troublesome refugees.