Friday 28 July 2017

Syrian refugees despair at US ban

Internally displaced Syrian children who fled Raqqa city stand near their tent in Ras al-Ain province, Syria. Photo: Reuters
Internally displaced Syrian children who fled Raqqa city stand near their tent in Ras al-Ain province, Syria. Photo: Reuters

Sara Elizabeth Williams

Syrian refugees are reeling as they wait to learn the impact of Donald Trump's promise to close America's borders to people fleeing from Syria.

The new US president is expected to implement a blanket ban on all new refugees entering the US for the next four months, as well as halting visa applications for people from Syria and five other countries for the next 30 days.

The flurry of new orders from the White House has upended the lives of Syrian refugee families in Jordan who only a week ago were preparing to make new lives for themselves in America.

"Now I have to think again and make new plans. I have three kids and I need to find a good future for them," said Abu Mohammad, a 29-year-old father of three from Daraa, southern Syria.

After four years in Jordan, Mr Mohammad expected to travel to Houston, Texas, in February. His mother and sister are already there. Now, he said, the only trip on his radar was to the Amman office of the UN's International Organisation for Migration, where he will wait for news.

Mr Trump's ban on refugees came as Russia abruptly announced that the next round of Syrian peace talks was being postponed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (centre) meets representatives of Syria’s political opposition in Moscow yesterday. Photo: Getty
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (centre) meets representatives of Syria’s political opposition in Moscow yesterday. Photo: Getty

Syria rebels and regime officials were due to gather in Geneva next week but Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said the talks were being pushed back until at least the end of February. He gave no explanation for the decision.

Rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad declined an invitation from Lavrov to meet in Moscow, raising doubts the meeting could offer something beyond another discussion panel on the nearly six-year-old conflict.

But several factions led an opposition delegation to talks with Russian and Turkish officials this week in Kazakhstan, as well as indirect talks with Syrian government representatives, in an attempt to shore up a shaky December 30 ceasefire with Assad's forces.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebel factions continue to fight against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qa'ida-linked jihadist group.

The violence in northern Syria is some of the worst infighting among opposition groups in recent years and has sent some smaller rebel groups into the arms of the hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham in an effort to counterbalance the jihadists.

Aid officials in Jordan privately admitted to being angry and "terrified" at the tone of Mr Trump's first week in office but are not commenting in public out of fear of alienating the new administration.

For the UN, criticising US policy is a delicate proposition: the US is the single largest government donor to the UN's refugee agency, contributing $1.5bn (€1.4bn) in 2016.

In Jordan, where the UN supports more than 650,000 Syrian refugees and runs two large camps in-country, plus a second camp on the Jordan-Syria border, any changes in refugee policy will be widely felt.

Under former President Barack Obama, the US reached its target of taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees in August 2016 but refugees continued to be screened and admitted from Jordan.

Next week, Jordan's King Abdullah II is scheduled to be in Washington DC, where he is expected to meet with members of the new administration and possibly also Mr Trump.

Like the UN, Jordan relies heavily on US funding, but the country also offers something in return: a long-standing Arab ally and a plenty of US military bases.

The complex relationship between Jordan and the US could be unsettled by another revelation from Washington this week. On Wednesday, Mr Trump said he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for refugees fleeing violence in their country.

In Jordan, where rumours have swirled for years of safe zones along the country's border with Syria, refugees and aid workers say this possibility has put them on edge.

Authorities have long been clear that Jordan is overburdened by its Syrian population, and looks forward to the day it is safe for them to return home. The issue is whether a safe zone just inside the Syrian border would offer safety enough.

A UN spokesperson said the organization was reaching out to the US administration to get more detail and clarity on the matter. But one official, who was not authorised to discuss the matter, said he was "extremely sceptical".

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Irish Independent

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