Amid Syrian crisis, Iraqi refugees in Jordan forgotten

AMMAN, 6 June 2013 (IRIN) - Up to 10 years after fleeing violence in their country, many Iraqi refugees living in Jordan are poor, failing to integrate, and unable to return home or get resettled in a third country.

Their condition - already worsening due to funding cuts in recent years - is now being overshadowed by the Syrian refugee crisis, leaving them increasingly vulnerable, even as more Iraqi refugees flee to Jordan every month.

The 2011 withdrawal of US troops from Iraq was seen by many as the end of a violent decade in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent sectarian violence which drove as many as 3.8 million Iraqis from their homes.

But in the last couple of years, 200-250 Iraqis have continued fleeing to Jordan every month, according to CARE International, one of the main NGOs working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Last year, new arrivals averaged 400 a month, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). And so far, 1,569 have registered as refugees this year, an average of just over 300 a month. An increase in bombings and other killings in Iraq in the last couple of months could see those figures increase.

A 2007 Jordanian government estimate put the number of Iraqis in Jordan at around 450,000, but many see these figures as exaggerated.

One indication is that only 29,000 Iraqis are registered with UNHCR, also due to the fact that many Iraqis came to Jordan with more wealth than other refugees. But those who registered with UNHCR are "extremely impoverished", the agency's representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, told reporters at a recent conference on Iraqi refugees. And while they may have had coping mechanisms when they first arrived, Harper later told IRIN, "that's run out."

"What we're really concerned about now is that it seems the number of Iraqis is increasing," said Dominique Hyde, representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Jordan. "Our focus obviously has been on Syrians."

According to CARE, most of the registered Iraqi refugees are dependent on cash assistance from aid agencies, which has been reduced or even interrupted in the past few years.

"As the Syrian crisis grew bigger, the Iraqi case has become invisible," Kevin Fitzcharles, CARE's country director in Jordan, told IRIN. "There are around 30,000 vulnerable Iraqi individuals in Jordan. They are not going to go away any time soon, and they need help. Who is going to provide them with help?"

Unemployment and poverty

A vulnerability assessment, conducted by CARE in March 2013, found that most Iraqis rely on "subsistence-level" assistance; meaning, on average cash payments of 119 Jordanian dinars (US$168) per month, when they have expenses exceeding that income by JD167 ($236).

To fill the income gap, Iraqis borrow from family and friends, take loans, eat less, and share housing, the survey found.

Although Iraqis have free access to health care and education in Jordan, it is "almost impossible" for them to secure work permits, as one aid worker put it. To apply to work in the 10 professional categories open to them, Iraqis must have active residency in Jordan, which requires either a deposit of 25,000 Jordanian dinars (US $35,285); marriage to a Jordanian citizen; or sponsorship by an employer who must prove that no Jordanian could do the job.

"I never realized how difficult it is to look for a job until the day I became a refugee," said Muhannad Damen, who left Iraq two years ago, but is still battling unemployment and poverty in Jordan.

CARE's assessment found that refugees have to survive with less money, which affects nutrition and diet: more than 40 percent of families interviewed reported skipping one meal a day and being regularly hungry.

Funding shortfall

Fitzcharles said over recent years it has become more difficult to get donors interested in Iraqis in Jordan, even more so following the Syrian crisis.

"I feel trapped here: no [chance] of a return or resettlement elsewhere; and this is never like home" CARE's own funding from the US Department of State and from the European Commission's humanitarian aid arm ECHO to help Iraqi refugees in Jordan has been cut in half over the past two years, from $1.5 million to $750,000 and $80,000 to $40,000 respectively.

"Their story has moved beyond an emergency [phase]," said Marilena Chatziantoniou, rapid response coordinator at ECHO's regional office in Amman. "We provide immediate humanitarian emergency [assistance], but now we need longer-term donors to work with the Jordanian government to find sustainable solutions for their situation."

After a general decline in funding over the years, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) cut its funding for Iraqi refugees altogether last year, because of a lack of funds, which were redirected to Syrian refugees.

"There are certainly vulnerable groups that have been forgotten," said regional director Beat Von Däniken.

As a result, services and the number of Iraqis receiving assistance have also been reduced.

"The services are being stretched and that could only go on for so long," Harper warned.

For example, CARE was helping 12,000 refugees two years ago, but now is only able to help 9,000 individuals with cash assistance, non-food items such as blankets and heaters, and psycho-social support services, Fitzcharles said.

Muath Asfour, outreach coordinator at the Center for Victims of Torture (CTV), said the waiting list of Iraqis seeking help from his organization has reached 200 people.
"So many Iraqis suffered traumatic incidents such as kidnapping, witnessing violence, witnessing death, bombings, and rape," Asfour told IRIN.

CTV's centres and mobile units in Amman and Zarqa receive about 200 new cases of Iraqis and Syrians every three months, but cannot keep up: "These people need help, but with limited funding, more people have to be on the waiting list."

Durable solutions?

Iraqis in Jordan are still referred to as "guests" by the government. They live mainly in the impoverished eastern side of Amman and in neighbourhing Zarqa Governorate.
Many have limited options.

"I feel trapped here: no [chance] of a return or resettlement elsewhere; and this is never like home. I feel isolated from everyone," said Hanan Shaker, who fled Iraq a year and a half ago, following death threats.

Most Iraqis fled violence in their countries in the hope of being resettled to a third country, researchers, aid workers and Iraqis say.

However, "with the current global economic crisis and the dwindling number of countries willing to grant asylum to Iraqi refugees, this option is becoming quite difficult to achieve as well," Isis Nusair, associate professor of international studies at Denison University, wrote in a recent article in Middle East Report.

Since 2007, she wrote, the US has admitted nearly 65,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement.

This year, a total of 1,500 refugees will be resettled in the US, Australia and Canada, UNHCR's Harper told reporters.

"Unfortunately, Iraqis think they will all be resettled, but it is not the case," he said.

In the meantime, aid agencies are left with the challenge of finding the best options for those who will not be resettled, Harper said.

"This very slow pace [of resettlement], together with the lingering global economic crisis and the tighter restrictions on asylum applications, means that many Iraqi refugees will remain in limbo for some time to come," Nusair wrote.

*not a real name


Theme (s): Aid Policy, Conflict, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]