UNHCR in massive sorting effort to return ID papers to Syrian refugees

Making a Difference, 17 October 2013

© UNHCR/J.Kohler
A UNHCR staff member looks for documents in one of the coded envelopes at the Raba'a al-Sarhan registration facility in Jordan.

AMMAN, Jordan, October 17 (UNHCR) Working around the clock, UNHCR staff in Jordan have been sorting through hundreds of thousands of precious, sometimes damaged, documents since July. Their goal: to return the papers to their Syrian owners, who handed over the documents on fleeing their battered homeland.

For nearly a year, the identity papers of refugees were taken as they entered northern Jordan and before they were transported to nearby Za'atri camp. In return, the new arrivals were provided with pink receipts for their documents.

By early 2013, as the conflict in Syria intensified and the trickle of arrivals turned into a flood, existing registration and filing systems were overwhelmed. As many of the Syrians had lost their identify papers, the Jordanian border authorities started accepting any paperwork offered by the desperate refugees, including passports, driving permits or family books. Storage of the growing piles of documentation became more difficult.

Finding the documents became an issue when refugees came forward and asked for their papers because they wanted to leave the camp for one reason or another. So, in July this year, UNHCR and the government agreed to work together to ensure that all refugees could have their documents back.

The challenge was to sort through the growing mountain of boxes and enter every document into a database. A joint project was established to organize and file the personal documents that had been stored in a dedicated facility at the new Raba'a al-Sarhan reception centre, which is located about 10 kilometres from the border.

The laborious work is conducted around-the-clock by about 50 UNHCR staff members working in shifts alongside Jordanian officials. It's a boring task, but rewarding. "The importance of an identity document for a refugee who has lost everything cannot be underestimated," says Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR's operation in Jordan. "You can see the immense relief on their faces when their documents are returned," the Australian adds.

The hard work is paying off: By early October almost 180,000 documents belonging to members of more than 76,000 families had been sorted, scanned and entered into a secure database. The originals are stored in specially coded envelopes and UNHCR has started the massive task of returning them to their owners in camps or in the urban areas where most have found shelter.

"It's been very hard work" says UNHCR Senior Registration Assistant Alaa Mahmoud Amoush, who is one of the team leaders for this project and has been involved in the gargantuan sorting effort since day one.

"Scanning all the paperwork and storing it in envelopes labelled with unique computer-readable bar codes ensures it can be easily searched," Amoush explains. "But I have lost five kilogrammes since it started in July as we have been working around-the-clock, even during Ramadan [from July 9-August 7] when we had to work in the heat all day long without water or food."

After this week's Eid al-Adha holidays, UNHCR plans to invite refugees in Za'atri to collect their paperwork and to launch a long-scheduled re-registration and verification of the camp's population. This will give UNHCR and its partner agencies a precise picture of the camp's population and needs, which will make it easier to plan delivery of services to residents.

The significant progress UNHCR's teams have made in recent months sorting through the documents would not have been possible without the support of the Jordanian authorities, who have provided containers for offices, equipment and other logistical assistance.

Later this year, UNHCR and the government of Jordan plan to move most of the daily registration activities from Za'atri to the Raba'a al-Sarhan reception facility. When that occurs, all refugees crossing the border will be registered before they are moved to Za'atri or other refugee camps.

Built with funding from the European Commission, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and other donors, the Raba'a al-Sarhan site will double UNHCR's existing registration capacity in the region, where many people cross from southern Syria. New arrivals will be medically screened, vaccinated, registered and issued with cards that provide access to education and World Food Programme rations.

"The Raba'a al-Sarhan registration site is yet another component of the contingency planning measures we have put in place in case large numbers of Syrian refugees suddenly cross the border into Jordan," UNHCR's Harper says. "Along with other measures, such as the establishment of a new contingency camp site in Azraq that can take up to 130,000 people, the UN refugee agency and its partners are demonstrating to the government of Jordan that we will stand by them in helping the country to cope with this massive refugee influx."

By Reem Alsalem in Amman, Jordan