Since 2003, violence has displaced up to 4.5 million Iraqis (roughly 17 percent of the Iraqi population). Approximately half are internally displaced, while the rest have fled to neighboring countries. The number of Iraqis currently living in Jordan, however, is difficult to determine, as newly-arrived Iraqis disappear into the Hashemite Kingdom's densely-populated cities.
Working in collaboration with the Jordanian Department of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Norwegian Research Institute, Fafo –- an independent polling organization –- estimated there were between 450,000-500,000 Iraqi residents in Jordan as of May 2007, whereas Jordan had previously maintained there were about 750,000 Iraqis and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had set the number as high as one million. The reason for this discrepancy lies in part in the ambiguous nature of the problem: Iraqis living in Jordan are difficult to count, find and survey because many live in fear and are hiding from authorities.
Every Iraqi interviewed by the International Organization on Migration in Jordan reports experiencing trauma in Iraq, from street bombings and drive-by shootings to more personal crimes such as jarring death threats, rape, or the murder of a loved one. Such experiences make Iraqis nervous about the prospect of being found by those who targeted them in Iraq, or of forced deportation by the Jordanian government. Legitimate or not, these fears make Iraqis less likely to respond to inquiries or to volunteer information, which makes their numbers -– and their needs -– extremely difficult to pinpoint.
However, data from Fafo and other independent studies provide at least a vague picture of the Iraqi population in Jordan. Assuming the lower Fafo numbers, at least 1 in 14 people in Jordan (which has a population of about 5.63 million) are displaced Iraqis. As of mid-February 2008, UNHCR had registered 52,192 Iraqis in Jordan, with almost 90 percent originating from Baghdad and most of the rest from Iraq's southern provinces. According to the Fafo study, Iraqi refugees in Jordan are about 55 percent male and 45 percent female. In addition, an estimated 15 percent of Iraqis in Jordan have special needs or are at risk (this includes people with medical needs, children, adolescents and women at risk, the disabled and the elderly).
Unable to legally work in Jordan, Iraqis who came to the country with middle class standing have since become impoverished as their savings run dry. Most have settled in crowded and decaying apartments in poor urban neighborhoods, and are becoming increasingly destitute and desperate.
So why should the U.S. care?
As the sixth largest recipient of U.S. aid, Jordan’s stability is of paramount concern to U.S. policymakers. Jordan -– a country bordered by Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the West Bank –- is considered one of the stabilizing countries in the Middle East and a moderate voice amongst Arab nations. To this end, Jordan works to meet the needs of all Arabs in hardship, including its substantial Palestinian refugee population, and is one of only two Arab countries to recognize Israel.
Jordan’s geopolitical position in the Middle East makes the country a crucial component of U.S. global military strategy in the region under the Central Command, and an important front in the global war on terror. Jordan has played a particularly pivotal role in supporting the restoration of stability and security to Iraq by training Iraqi police cadets at Jordanian facilities and by encouraging reconciliation of the Iraqi government. A stable, functioning Jordan is therefore critical to regional and international stability, and continued strong relations between the United States and Jordan are key to Jordan’s moderate policies and stability.
As the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict attests, instability often follows large numbers of displaced people. In Jordan, the burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis is heavy, straining the country's resources and capacity and increasing friction between Jordanians, Palestinians and Iraqis forced to compete for basic needs. This threat to Jordan’s stability is also a threat to U.S. interests, and the United States must play an important role by either fostering stability through aid and regional leadership, or allowing that stability to deteriorate.