Jordan has withdrawn all free medical treatment to the country’s 1.3 million Syrian refugees after the impoverished nation found it impossible to bear the cost of housing, feeding and caring for them, The Times has learnt.
Jordanian officials said that providing healthcare for the refugees had cost the country £19 million since the war in Syria began four years ago and that the total bill of looking after them had driven it further into debt.
Refugees are prohibited from working in Jordan, which has a border with Syria, leading humanitarian experts to express anxieties about how those who need medical treatment will cope.
Adam Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, said: “This development makes an already tough situation much harder. Most Syrian refugees can’t work legally and have exhausted their savings, so paying for medical care is an additional challenge.”
The removal of free healthcare is the latest in a series of changes to what Jordan will provide refugees, in practice if not in policy, as the country puts its own security and debt before humanitarian obligations.
Over the past month, Jordan has quietly stopped all but a few refugees crossing its borders. Aid agencies and other charities claim that refugees who had been looking to cross into Jordan have been pushed back from the border. They have also expressed concern that there were an estimated 4,000 Syrians trapped in a no-man’s-land between Syria and Jordan.
The government insisted that the border had not been closed. Mohammad Momani, a spokesman, said that the number of refugees allowed in depended on whether, on any given day, it was safe to open the border, but that the government regularly announced the number of new arrivals.
There are already about a million Syrian refugees in Jordan: the UN has registered 618,000 but government officials say there are at least 1.3 million. One refugee camp in Jordan, called Zaatari, which in the summer was estimated to house 81,000 people, is now so big that it is effectively the fourth largest city in the country.
However, the vast majority of the refugees do not live in camps, but in rented accommodation within cities where they have less support.
Last month, the cash-strapped World Food Programme decided that it had to focus its non-camp aid on those it believed to be the neediest. It left about 12,000 families scrambling to cover the cost of food without their 24 dinar (£21.60) voucher per person each month.
“They’re being driven to go back to the camps or go back to Syria. They have no job, no source of income. They’re not left with much choice, to be honest,” said a frontline aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Although a growing number of refugees are returning to Syria, there is mounting concern that the bulk of these returns are not voluntary. Deporting refugees to the country they fled is illegal under international law.
Mr Coogle said that he received an increasing number of reports of deportations, often for reasons that were unclear and without refugees getting to present their deportation case in court.
“Sometimes they deport people the same day, or they hold them for a couple of days. It’s pretty quick. They basically bus people to a point along the border and say, ‘Walk that way’.”
A document leaked to The Times revealed that the dozens of refugees returned to Syria in the past month included children, paralysed men and a heavily pregnant woman who was in labour at the time of her return.
Andrew Harper, the UN refugee agency’s top official in Jordan, said: “While acknowledging the legitimate security concerns of the government, it is critical that we do not lose sight that the majority of refugees are women, children, the sick and the elderly and they need to be protected.”
Jordan’s proximity to Syria’s war underpins its security concerns: the people and forces who could destabilise the country are just few miles away.