Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan: The View from the Ground

Last Thursday, as I lunched in the stately dinning room of one of Northwest D.C.'s Victorian brownstones, I listened to a fascinating discussion of the refugee situation in Jordan. Sitting at the head of the table was Noah Merrill of Electronic Iraq, who just returned from Jordan, where he spent hundred of hours interviewing Iraqi refugees.

Although there are approximately one million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the interviewees were not easy to locate, Noah told us. Despite the UNHCR estimated 50,000 refugees fleeing to Jordan every month, there are no refugee camps; newly arrived refugees disappear into the densely-populated urban landscape of Jordan's biggest cities.

The untraceable existence of these refugees has several worrisome causes. First among these is Jordan's ability to shirk the responsibility, mandated by international law, to recognize and protect refugees within its borders. Jordan never signed on to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees for fear that in doing so, it would be committing itself to granting residency to the large numbers of Palestinian refugees within its borders. With 60 to 70 percent of the Jordanian population made up of these Palestinian refugees, Jordanians, who are the minority in their own country, view the influx of Iraqi refugees as a genuine existential threat to their country's national identity.

Refugees, therefore, are not seen by the Jordanian government as, well, refugees. To paraphrase as senior Jordanian official: "Jordan does not have a refugee problem; Jordan has an illegal immigration problem." Thus viewed as illegal immigrants, Iraqi refugees are prohibited from working. Forced by financial circumstances to defy this prohibition, Iraqis try their best to stay under the radar. If caught, they face deportation back across the border, into the lawless terrorist haven of Al-Anbar province.

Other factors also make the climate inhospitable to Iraqi refugees. For example, the UN Refugee Agency, under pressure from the Jordanian government, has stopped issuing refugee certificates to Iraqis, and instead grants them refugees cards with the largely hollow "temporary asylum seeker" status.

Also, Noah continued, the Jordanian government, echoing a similar threat it made last year, has stated that it will expel all Iraqi children from schools - public and private. Amelia Templeton, an Iraqi refugee advocate and former NPR correspondent, said that when she interviewed Jordan's Minister of Education, he cited the cost and pressure on classroom size caused by the refugee influx as the rationale behind such measures. Yet Jordanian officials have begun to shut down schools operating out of churches - independent, informal schools which have no presumable impact on public classrooms. Noah pointed out the devastating effects such measures are having on the Iraqis, a people whose culture deeply prizes education.

In order for Iraqi refugees to ensure that they will not be deported back to Iraq, they have two options: leave Jordan and flee to a more hospitable country like Egypt, or try to gain residency status. This second option is only available to Iraqis that have the ability to put a certain amount of money into Jordanian banks. Essentially, says Noah, the Jordanian government is following international conventions to protect one type of refugee: the wealthy refugee.

A final factor threatening many Iraqi refugees in Jordan is a virulent and "intentionally constructed" anti-Shia sentiment, says Noah. State-led propaganda campaigns spread the belief that the Iraqi Shia community is responsible for bringing Americans into Iraq and for the "assassination" of Saddam Hussein. As a result of these sentiments, Iraqi Shia refugees that try to form self-help communities are deported back to Iraq.

Noah Merill ended the discussion by saying that the refugee crisis represents a political problem. As such, humanitarian aid is necessary - but not sufficient - when it comes to dealing effectively with this problem. He says that a plan that helps get Iraqi refugees back into Iraq should be fundamental to any proposed solution. This is, he said, what the refugees he interviewed truly desired - to go home.

With American NGO participants just coming back into town from last week's UN-led conference to address the Iraqi displacement crisis, I am trying to track down any information about whether such a plan is in the works. But with the fragile security environment in Iraq constantly undermined by ongoing violence, I have to wonder what the prospects for such a plan really are at this point.

For more information on Iraq's refugee emergency, be sure to check out EPIC's interview with refugee advocate Sean Garcia of Refugees International.

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