Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Amman: A Long Term Temporary Stage for Iraqis

“We’re not staying here”, keeps on saying Razaq, a 45-year-old Iraqi mechanical engineer. Razaq is as 500,000 Iraqis that left their devastated country to settle in Jordan, according to Jordanian official sources. They moved “temporarily” as they say, at least as they hope. 53,331 of them are registered at the UNHCR in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Razaq came to Amman on the 3rd of June of 2005, he remembers vividly. He used to work as a mechanical engineer, then as a taxi driver, when members of militia, who he cannot identify, clearly took possession of his workplace. For being a catholic family, the Razaqs received repeated threats from militia accusing them to be “koffar”, non believers, and being collaborators with Americans. Razaq kept on working as a taxi driver connecting Baghdad and Amman. “One day,” says Razaq, “I don’t know who exactly, maybe the Mahdi army, maybe Al Qaida or Saoudis, never mind, someone tried to kidnap my son Mokhless.” “In the middle of the day, in the street just in front of our house,” points out Razaq’s wife, Imane. The attempt to abduct their son was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it convinced them to put the whole family in the car and move to Jordan.

Insecure safety

Arriving in Amman, they felt relieved as they found the “safe haven” they were looking for their four children. But being safe seems not enough today for the family. When arriving to Jordan, they decided to put their children in private schools. They could afford this since they brought with them cash and sold the car with which Razaq used to work as a taxi driver. In 2007, King Abdullah II granted all Iraqi refugees regardless of their status the right to enrol also in Jordanian public schools, even though Razaq’s children are not going to school anymore. Private schools are too expensive for this family, they are running out of money and the public ones have a very bad reputation according to them.

“I’m not allowed to work, what future can I afford to my children?” asks Razaq when showing his UNHCR asylum seeker certificate. And that is the main issue. The Jordanian government does not allow the Iraqi refugees to work since Jordanian unemployment varies officially and unofficially respectively 15 and 30 percent. At the same time, not being allowed to work makes the refugees even more vulnerable, since an important part of them has already spent the cash they brought with them from Iraq. From now on, they are depending on the funding of the International Community through the UNHCR. The UN agency is facing today severe funding problems, which bolsters the critical situation. “The food boxes we were able to provide cost 70 US dollars last year while this year the same food boxes cost 113 US dollars.”

The future is not predicting any improvement in Jordan. Ziad Ayad, an associate research officer at the UNHCR in Amman, is well aware of the current tense situation. Nevertheless, he still has hope the crisis can be defused if the security is re-established in Iraq so that a certain number of refugees can return back home.

Guests vs. Refugees

Iraqis in Jordan are not recognized as “refugees” but as “guests.” Behind this poetic designation there is a harsher situation. Whereas refugees have rights, guests don’t. Jordan is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention 1951, which implies that local authorities are not obliged, as the Convention states, to provide them food, health care and the right not to be repatriated.

Jordan is a country that has been hosting refugees for decades: in 1948 after the creation of Israel that lead Palestinians to flee from their lands, in 1967 after the Six Days War, in 1991 after the first Gulf War and eventually in 2003 after the American intervention in Iraq. “Jordan is in between the hell”, sums up Jameel Dababneh, project officer for Caritas Jordan. And Iraqi “guests” do well understand the national context and thank the Kingdom to have accepted them despite the hindrances they are facing in their daily life.

The only durable solution 

Few metres away from Razaq and Imane lives another Iraqi family. Fadhel’s family is Muslim and came to Jordan in 2004 after having also received several threats for having worked for American Forces in Mosul for almost one year since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Fadhel has two sons and three daughters, the oldest of which is already married and living in the United States. His family lives in Hashmi Al-Shamali, in East Amman. “Jordan is only a temporary stage for us”, says Fadhel, “we have applied for re-settlement in the United States.” Again, local integration is not seen as an option. As the UNHCR officer Dana Bejali mentions, there are only three possibilities for refugees: voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement. “The first one is impossible due to the actual situation in Iraq,” she explains, “the second is not feasible due to local legislation which leaves us with only resettlement, that is right now the only durable solution: and this is what the refugees want, but the criteria are very hard to meet for them.”

The restrictions to enter the hosting countries as the United States, Canada or Sweden are getting even stricter. Meanwhile, Amman seems to be a long term temporary stage for Iraqis...

Amira Souilem, Gulsen Devre and Letizia Gambini