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Stories of the Displaced

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:29 pm
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Between Iraq and a hard place
With Jordan’s population numbering 5.6 million, the impact of Iraqi refugees on its infrastructure is enormous for a country already rife with domestic problems. Jordan suffers from a lack of water resources (one of the world’s 10 poorest in terms of water resources), high unemployment, and an 18 percent poverty rate among Jordanians. “That is why the international community must step in and help Jordan with this burden,” said Sweis, “which is what we are trying to do as well.”

Due to its experience in relation to the Palestinian crises in 1948 and then again in ’67 that saw a flood of approximately 2.5 million Palestinians enter the country and eventually reshape Jordan’s political, socio-economic, and cultural life, the Jordanian government is loath to create a hospitable atmosphere for Iraqi refugees. Although disenfranchised in many ways, according to Sweis, the Palestinian population placed their children in schools and took over the social services. Most of the original refugees were granted citizenship in 1950, and today they represent more than half of the Jordanian population. “The Jordanians do not want to see this happening again in their country—that the Iraqis would stay,” said Sweis. “The best solution for all is that the Iraqis would be able to return to a safe Iraq. What we [UNHCR] are trying to do is to make their life easier while they are here, and at the same time help the Jordanian government cope with this crisis. The solution will have to be a political solution. [What we are doing now] is a temporary solution.”

In Geneva, at a UNHCR conference addressing the humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons in April of this year, Jordan reported that hosting 750,000 Iraqis, who have come to represent 15 percent of Jordan’s total population, is costing them $1 billion annually and asked for that amount from the international community. The Iraqi government has pledged $25 million dollars to help Iraqis outside of Iraq but that money has yet to be delivered. According to UN estimates, it would cost $78 million just to educate the children of Iraqi refugees.

One important issue raised by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the conference had to do with violations of international law, specifically refugee law, concerning non-refoulement—that is, protections against refugees being returned to home countries where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. In the case of Iraq’s refugees, there have been reports of some neighboring states refusing entry to Iraqis, and also the forcible return of refugees to Iraq. According to a statement drafted by a broad spectrum of NGOs at the conference: “At present, those fleeing violence in Iraq are received by neighboring countries as temporary visitors, not refugees with recognized rights. This situation is further exacerbated by the difficult renewal process of their visas, with the result that most Iraqis living in third countries quickly lose their legal status and are left to fend for themselves, living in fear and subject to exploitation.”

Caught in the crossfire
Hatem Oday was a colonel in the Iraqi Air Force. In 2004 he received death threats from the Iran-linked Shiite Badr militia in relation to his participation in the Iran-Iraq War some 25 years previous. On May 30, 2004, 11 pilots living in the same Baghdad district were killed in one day. Oday left Baghdad three days later with his wife and six children. I asked his eldest daughter, Rafel, age 16, how it felt to be living in Amman. Her eyes filled with tears as she managed to respond, “I am bored. I miss my friends and wish to go back to my country,” before bolting from the room sobbing. Mamoud, the eldest boy said he is bored as well. A male of 14 years, he is especially at risk from random detainment or deportation.

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