Jordan’s ‘forgotten refugees’ struggle to get by, fear speaking up

An altercation with Jordanian police has shaken the country’s roughly 3,000 Sudanese, who say no one protects them

On the cramped streets and narrow sidewalks outside the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) headquarters in Amman, Jordan, hundreds of Sudanese refugees gathered in peaceful protest of their living conditions on Sunday, Nov. 9 and the three days that followed. They held signs — “We need education," “protection,” and “rights” — simple demands shared by all the world’s displaced but afforded to relatively few.

Each day they returned, though in dwindling numbers, with around 80 or 90 of the most ardent protesters camping out in front of the headquarters overnight, until Wednesday. That night, several of the men told Al Jazeera, Jordanian police arrived to persuade them to either leave or relocate their demonstration to an adjacent construction site, something authorities had been requesting for days. When the protesters again refused, the police descended on them. They tear gassed and beat them, allegedly knocking a few unconscious and forcing others to seek hospital treatment.

Police told a different story to the UNHCR, saying that the situation only escalated after demonstrators tried to storm the building. They denied anyone was knocked unconscious. (Al Jazeera was not able to reach Jordan’s security directorate in time for publication.) Whatever the case, the protests promptly ceased. “They told us this was our last chance. This was their kingdom, and if we continued to ask for more rights they’d send us back to Sudan,” said Ismail, a 23 year-old from Darfur.

Several Sudanese men are pictured sleeping outside UNHCR headquarters, in a photo provided by the protesters.

For Jordan’s roughly 3,000 Sudanese refugees, many of whom fled their country's genocide or ensuing violence, the altercation punctuated the very concerns they are trying to raise with the U.N. — in part, because it took place at the doorstep of the agency that is charged with their safety. A week earlier, they had drafted a letter asking the UNHCR to protect them from alleged abuse at the hands of the police, among other complaints tied to their growing sense of abandonment as aid groups and donors are increasingly preoccupied with the Syrian crisis.

Jordan’s Sudanese have also demanded that they receive access to the same humanitarian assistance, including education and food vouchers, provided for the country’s 618,000 registered Syrian refugees. Most Sudanese receive no material assistance from the overburdened UNHCR, even though refugees are not permitted to work in Jordan.

The idea to protest was sparked by the October shooting of a Sudanese man in Amman’s Ashrafiyeh neighborhood, the latest in a string of violence targeting African refugees, the protesters said. They accuse the police of not taking these cases seriously, and the UNHCR of not doing enough to pressure local authorities when they disregard their rights. “The problem is that there is no other place for us to go, nowhere to tell anyone we’ve been beaten,” said Ismail. “We don’t have any protections.”

The Sudanese are not the only refugee community in Jordan who say they’ve fallen through the cracks in recent years, nor are they the largest. The country still hosts 2 million Palestinian refugees, who come under the purview of a separate U.N. refugee agency. The UNHCR registers all other refugees, who hail from 44 different countries. Ninety percent of these are Syrian, but there are still nearly 30,000 Iraqi refugees left in the country, thousands of Somalis and Eritreans — and a dwindling number of NGOs that have funds to help anyone but Syrians survive.

“The Syrians get camps, education, money. The Sudanese don’t,” said Moneim, a 19 year-old from Darfur who was at the UNHCR protests. “We are lost refugees.”

“A lot of people come to Jordan with the expectation they’ll be immediately recognized as refugees and resettled quickly, and while they’re waiting they’ll receive cash assistance. The reality is different."

Andrew Harper

UNHCR's Representative to Jordan

Whereas Syrians are provided the option of camps (though most forego them for some semblance of normalcy in Jordan's towns and cities), the country's “other” refugees are on their own. The Sudanese men who spoke to Al Jazeera live in an apartment shared among 12-20 men. Though refugees are not permitted to work in Jordan, most of them manage to scrape a living through odd construction jobs or other tentative arrangements. “Sometimes you work and then you don’t get paid at the end of the month, but you can’t go and complain to the police,” said Ismail.

Access to basic health care, which is supposed to be guaranteed for all refugees, is inconsistent. The Sudanese frequently complain that hospitals refuse to treat them. Meanwhile, African refugees say they are subject to racial abuse from Jordanians as well as the police. The men who spoke to Al Jazeera, most of whom had been living in Jordan for over a year, said they knew none of their neighbors.

The UNHCR says there is no discrimination against any one group. In fact, it says the Sudanese are granted asylum in Jordan at very high rates. But Andrew Harper, the agency’s representative in Jordan, explained that limited resources must be apportioned to those refugees deemed most at-risk, which currently includes mostly Syrians fleeing their country’s bloody civil war. Whereas three-quarters of Syrian refugees are women and children, most Sudanese are adult men and, therefore, thought better able to fend for themselves on the margins of Jordanian society.

“Many groups feel they’ve been forgotten or left behind, but the amount of support we provide to Sudanese is actually fairly commensurate with the population,” Harper said. “There’s no doubt the world’s attention is on the Syrians, but that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about Sudanese or Somalis or Iraqis.”

As of Nov. 5, the UNHCR — funded almost entirely by voluntary government contributions — had raised just $1.9 billion of the $3.7 billion it needs to address the Syrian refugee crisis alone for 2014. Harper said the UNHCR does assist dozens of qualifying Sudanese families, and provides lawyers and other staff to advocate on behalf of all refugees. But cash is always short.

“A lot of people come to Jordan with the expectation they’ll be immediately recognized as refugees and resettled quickly, and while they’re waiting they’ll receive cash assistance,” Harper said. “The reality is different. We’d like to provide for everyone, but that’s a dream at this point.”

There are also the realities of international fundraising to consider. For the last couple years, Syrians have received the lion’s share of media attention and therefore dominate global fundraising appeals — even though they are often better off than other refugees in Jordan. Certain NGOs, sometimes operating under the umbrella of the UNHCR, often advertise to donors that funds will be channeled towards the roiling Syrian conflict. As a recent article in The Atlantic put it, “NGOs can’t take money from their ‘Feed a Syrian Family This Christmas’ campaign and feed a Somali family instead.”

The allotment of funds tends to breed resentment between refugees of different origins, who often live side-by-side in the same run-down neighborhoods. Only a couple NGOs provide assistance to the Sudanese in Jordan, aid workers say. “It’s not so much about discrimination, as about the Syria response versus the response for everyone else,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Jordan.

Still, the number of Sudanese in Jordan has reportedly doubled in recent years. Many Sudanese choose Jordan because of its lax medical visa policy, whereby would-be refugees can land in Amman's Queen Alia International Airport with a doctor’s note saying they require urgent treatment not available in Sudan. They then beeline for the UNHCR to file an asylum claim.

The Sudanese appear to be the most organized refugee contingent in Amman, as evidenced by their activism. But speaking up is risky. In fact, several Sudanese community leaders told Coogle, who has been investigating the UNHCR incident, that they were opposed to the idea of protesting in the first place because they knew the government has a proclivity for deporting troublesome refugees.

And in situations where refugees are threatened with deportation, there is often little the UNHCR can do. That may be why, according to the protesters, a man who identified himself as a UNHCR employee confronted them on the final day of their sit-in to warn that “no country will resettle people who protest in its land.”

Jordan, in fact, has taken on an enormous burden by sheltering over 700,000 refugees from conflicts it didn’t instigate. The influx has strained the country’s already overburdened social services and stoked tensions in impoverished host communities, where refugees are often accused of stealing jobs and driving up real estate prices. Jordan is widely considered one of the most welcoming destinations for refugees the world over, allowing Sudanese to enter on what is essentially a false premise and even permitting them to protest. But its tolerance has limits.

With war and violent insurgency closing off most of the Middle East to refugees, the UNHCR expects Jordan will see more pour across its borders. Israel, Egypt and Turkey have earned bad reputations for what refugee advocates call inhospitable policies. Meanwhile, they say developed nations are not pulling their weight. An anti-immigration current in “Fortress Europe” has made it much more difficult for migrants to even reach its shores, let alone gain asylum.

The UNHCR said it was investigating the “regrettable” incident on its grounds last week. But the best advice the agency has for Sudanese refugees seems to be to keep their heads down and hope for resettlement.

Ismail said the protest movement had run its course, for now. Seven of his roommates lost their jobs during the demonstrations since they had to miss work for four days. Because the men pool money for food and rent, that has put all of them in a bind.

“We asked for help, but there is none,” said Moaz, another of the men from Sudan. “So I guess we just watch out for ourselves.”

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