AMMAN—Rana’s brother was supposed to be on his way to Canada. After four years as a refugee in Jordan, the 35-year-old Syrian had completed all his security checks and interviews with the UN refugee agency and resettlement services in preparation for his flight to his new home. His flight was set to depart around 9:00 p.m. on the night of January 29, 2016. Instead, by 8:00, he and his family were sitting in a Jordanian detention cell, their heartbeats racing against the passing seconds.
A 29-year-old mother of two, Rana had been living in Jordan since 2012. Several months earlier, her husband vanished into a Syrian government detention after being injured by a car bomb. She’d left Syria’s southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad first began, while her sister remained in a government-controlled area of the country. The women had censored themselves when they talked on the phone, fearing both Syrian and Jordanian surveillance. “All we said was, ‘Hello, how are you, any news? Thank God, goodbye,’” Rana told me over WhatsApp.
For decades, Jordan has taken in millions of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees, earning it a reputation as an island of peace. Amman, its capital, is a humanitarian hub, with scores of international agencies, NGOs, and aid workers who cycle through every few months to manage crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine. Jordan currently hosts more than 650,000 of the 5.2 million Syrian refugees spread across the region, according to the UN refugee agency; government figures put the number at 1.3 million. (UNHCR only counts registered refugees, whereas Amman includes Syrians who haven’t received UN asylum.) Jordan hosts all these refugees because, as the general narrative goes, it is stable, secure, and generous, which is also why donor states like the United States should keep giving it money. Yet Jordan also deports and blocks aid access to refugees and asylum seekers, regularly violating basic humanitarian principles, all in the name of maintaining that same “security.”