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Caught in the regional crossfire in Jordan

6 August 2012

The crisis in Syria has pushed another wave of refugees into Jordan, which already has an enormous displaced population, writes Jolie Chai in Amman


Located in arid northern Jordan, the new Za'atri camp can eventually host up to 113,000 refugees.
Photo: Jamal Nasrallah/ EPA

Located in arid northern Jordan, the new Za'atri camp can eventually host up to 113,000 refugees.
Photo: Jamal Nasrallah/ EPA

THE affluent residential neighbourhood of Deir Ghbar sits unobtrusively on the Western periphery of Jordan’s capital, Amman. In the early hours of the morning, tucked beneath the shade of sculpted trees and gated villas, asylum seekers gather across the street from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, taking respite from the relentless Ramadan heat. The Arabic licence plates lining the street read like an updated list of the regional hot spots: Homs, Dara’a, Damascus, Hama and Baghdad. Yellow taxis, overflowing mini-vans, battered trucks and crammed buses approach the Mufawadiah, or Commissioner, as the organisation is colloquially known. This is the office where I have worked for four years.

In our office in Amman, we receive a call from the Jordanian Residency and Border Directorate and I find myself en route to a large detention facility in the capital. A refugee has been working illegally and a deportation order has been issued. We are granted access to a heavily guarded detention facility only to learn that the refugee has already been transferred in preparation for deportation. In desperation, we trace his journey and locate him at a police station awaiting a bus that will remove him from the country. Only through a formal intervention are we given a short period to find an alternative to expulsion.

The root of the problem is that refugees are tolerated in Jordan as “guests” but not afforded legal rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Instead, customary refugee law, international human rights law, and the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding signed between the UNHCR and the Jordanian government outline general principles of international protection. Those formally recognised as refugees are granted six months of legal status in Jordan, during which time a “durable solution” – as the UNHCR calls it – must be identified.

In the case of the Syrians, the United Nations has not implemented large-scale individual refugee status determination for those seeking asylum in Jordan. Instead refugees are granted de facto temporary protection, a tool typically used in situations of mass influx. But the legal parameters of this form of protection are ambiguous and continue to raise uncertainties about available long-term solutions.

THE problem seems likely to intensify. Just three weeks ago, on 15 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the Syrian uprising a civil war. Power outages, food shortages, armed checkpoints, roadside bombs, and the continuing use of force by pro-government and rebel forces alike have not only put an end to any semblance of normality in the Arab Republic of Syria but also prompted hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in search of safety. For many, this has meant crossing into neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey and even Iraq. By late July approximately 10,000 Iraqis who had previously fled from their home country to Syria had chosen to return home, preferring threats of persecution in Iraq to the escalating bloodshed in Syria, a dramatic reversal of roles. Meanwhile, more than 8500 Syrians have been registered as refugees in Iraq.

Given common languages, open borders, relative stability and support networks based on historical trade and inter-marriage, and despite the relatively high cost of living, Jordan remains a desirable refuge for Syrians. The four transit sites along the Jordanian side of the border have reached capacity. The fact that the newest site, at Za’atri in the desolate northeastern town of Mafraq, was designed to accommodate more than 100,000 refugees illustrates the scale of the calamity that is now expected.

Jordan, with little more than six million citizens, is once again at the geographic centre of regional upheaval. Having absorbed large numbers of refugees from Palestine in 1948 and 1967, the country’s population is currently estimated to be 60 per cent Palestinian. In 2006, the rise of sectarian violence in neighbouring Iraq once again confronted Jordan with mass displacement. More than 30,000 Iraqis were officially registered as refugees in Jordan, but given that more than two million Iraqis were reported to have fled their home country, the actual numbers are believed to be much higher. Jordanian government statistics put the number in the hundreds of thousands.

The recent arrival of scores of refugees from war-torn Syria may very likely jeopardise the fragile demographic balance in Jordan. According to the United Nations, 120,000 Syrians have recently been registered in the region. In Jordan, the number reached 37,000 in late July, with an additional 50,000 in need of assistance, according to local humanitarian organisations. With an estimated 1500 people crossing into Jordan each day, the number of Syrians has for the first time surpassed the number of registered Iraqis, Jordan’s most recent benchmark for a humanitarian crisis.

At first sight, refugees from Iraq and Syria seem comparable: they have fled from sectarian conflicts and, given their cultural backgrounds, the prospects for integration in Arab Jordan seem high. But there are important differences. Wealthy Iraqis from the mostly urban elite were persecuted because of their former association with Saddam Hussein’s regime or for their religion, and have ultimately settled in Jordan’s capital, causing real estate prices to soar and fuelling an unprecedented construction boom.

Syrians, by contrast, have for the most part arrived from the less urbanised strongholds of the resistance in that country. While this will very likely change in the near future, most Syrian refugees are poor and often illiterate and arrive with little but the clothes on their backs. According to the United Nations, over half of the registered refugee population in Jordan is from the embattled city of Homs, with increasing numbers arriving from Dara’a, Damascus and Aleppo. Over 90 per cent of adult refugees from Homs are unemployed or unskilled labourers and over 95 per cent have nine years or fewer of school education. Almost three-quarters are women or children.

The distinctive needs of Syrian refugees might therefore prove more burdensome for Jordan than the previous Iraqi influx. Recent surveys by the international aid agency CHF International have found that the primary concern among Syrian refugees is shelter, with most families entirely dependent on charitable donations. For the few who are able to find employment, earnings are often insufficient to cover even the most basic expenses. Syrians are also very anxious to minimise disruptions to their children’s education and to have access to basic medical services. These needs are compounded by the overall level of poverty and gender-related vulnerability, and the sheer magnitude of displacement.

Although Jordan does have certain structures in place for dealing with refugees, there are concerns that the country will not be able to accommodate this third large-scale refugee intake in the longer run. What are the solutions then?

None of the United Nations’ three durable solutions for refugees – voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement – seem realistic at the moment. With July’s al Qaeda attack on fifteen cities across Iraq coming on top of fears about renewed violence, a large-scale return to Iraq appears improbable. Similarly, recent reports of Syrian army assaults on the northern city of Aleppo confirm that the situation is deteriorating rapidly and that repatriation is likely to remain impossible in the short term.

Local integration is severely limited by legal hurdles. Although Syrians don’t need a visa to enter Jordan, they must pass a security screening and secure a guarantor prior to being granted entry into the country. Once released from the transit facilities, they move to the urban centers where they struggle to sustain themselves, usually without the option of a legal job. The result is the kind of case that took me to a large detention facility that day in Amman.

The third option, resettlement to any of a dozen or so Western countries that participate in this program, can certainly provide a much-needed solution for a small fraction of the most vulnerable. But it is too modest in scale to deal with the demographic upheaval that results from the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Throughout the past few years this solution has become increasingly difficult for refugees in this region to pursue. Since the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007, when the future of Iraqi refugees was on the foreign policy agendas of major resettlement countries including Australia, interest has waned, resources have been reallocated, and quotas reduced or altogether closed.

Although the United States remains committed to the resettlement of Iraqis, the process has been stalled by enhanced security checks that in some cases can take years. Regional resettlement programs previously based in Damascus have been severely hampered by the outbreak of violence, and many of the most vulnerable cases have been left in limbo. This has disastrous consequences for the individuals concerned: complex vulnerabilities, security threats, medical issues, and cultural taboos are among the innumerable issues that cannot be resolved here and have serious political implications for Jordan.

THE absence of viable solutions for refugees places Jordan once again in an unenviable position. In the wake of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and with fears of long-term violence in Syria, the country could very well find itself bordering three protracted refugee crises: Israel–Palestine, Iraq and Syria.

Jordan faces the challenge of balancing the needs of large-scale refugee movements while responding to growing discontent from within its own borders. Jordanians struggle with high unemployment, rising costs of living, government corruption and limited political participation. As the experience of Iraq demonstrates, months can quickly dissolve into years of uncertainty. This long-term strain on Jordan’s limited resources could render the country more susceptible to violence, discontent and internal upheaval, a possibility keenly recognised by Jordanian officials.

Fears that Jordan may clamp down on the refugee presence continue to surface. Recently, there have been reports of Jordanians interrogating Assad opponents. Rumours have spread that some refugees, including Palestinians from Syria, have been refused entry. Human Rights Watch confirms that Syrians who are unable to secure a guarantor on arrival are being confined to a “holding centre” for weeks or months at a time.

Nevertheless, what the international community must ask is how much can reasonably be expected of Jordan given the magnitude of the Syrian crisis, the challenges of existing refugee populations, and significant domestic agitation. Given the lessons of the Palestinian and Iraqi conflicts, finding the political will to secure an immediate end to the violence in Syria is the only solution to preventing a prolonged and disastrous humanitarian crisis, a challenge that has become more daunting since Kofi Annan’s recent resignation.

But in the absence of a political resolution, all local, regional and international efforts must be coordinated to protect refugees. Although the international community has contributed funds towards the refugee crisis, notably from the International Monetary Fund, the Arab League, the United States, and the European Union, this is simply not enough.

In my years with the UNHCR in Amman, I have interviewed thousands of refugees living under conditions of extreme vulnerability. Refugees ask for shelter, safety, opportunities for their children and, most importantly, a future.

The burden of a humanitarian crisis of this kind should not only fall on neighbours who are forced to act in the face of open wounds, trauma and violence. The international community must recognise that Jordan’s fragile peace may very well be the last remaining oasis in a region in turmoil. What remains clear is that the colossal burden of supporting refugees cannot be shouldered by Jordan alone. •

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