AMMAN, Jordan — Mohand Qasim’s family has been seeking asylum for four and a half years, but they’ve never lived in a camp. Qasim was a poor Iraqi man making clothing during the American-led invasion of his country. Then his neighbor started working with U.S. forces as an interpreter and said they paid well. Qasim followed and became a janitor.
One day, Qasim was attacked by armed men on his way home. His skull was beaten with guns until his whole face bled, and he’s had schizophrenia ever since. He and his family fled to Syria, only to have conflict break out within a year. They returned to Baghdad in 2011, but were threatened again. When their neighbor was shot in the head and killed, the family fled once more, this time to Jordan.
Qasim, his wife and seven children now live deep in the alleyways of East Amman. They are far from alone. Like the other 29,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, along with 80 percent of the 600,000 registered Syrian refugees and some 4,000 asylum seekers from other countries, they are making do in Jordan’s urban outskirts, forbidden to work legally but scraping together the rent while waiting for refugee status, potential aid and possible resettlement.
As the Syrian conflict hurtles deeper into its fourth year and chaos unfurls across Iraq, Jordan’s refugee influx has gone from sudden flood to protracted crisis. The Hashemite kingdom must shift its response accordingly: from immediate humanitarian relief to long-term development, and from building camps to supporting cities. This policy rebalance is bureaucratic and redundant and demands tricky negotiation between the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), NGOs and government. But, as host to almost 650,000 registered refugees, about a tenth of its total population, the kingdom doesn’t have much choice.
Jordan is used to refugees. Early in the kingdom’s establishment, it formally annexed the West Bank from pre-1948 Palestine, increasing Jordan’s population from 500,000 to 1.5 million within two years, one third of them Palestinian refugees. The second wave of 400,000 Palestinians came in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency has now registered more than 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the largest number from any country.
Iraqi refugees have also swept into Jordan twice — first in the early 1990s, when the Gulf War brought a wave of mostly middle-class Iraqis to the kingdom. The second wave came after the 2003 invasion.
Then came the Syrians, with roughly 2,000 entering Jordan in 2011, Zaatari Camp opening the next summer, 120,000 refugees there within another year, and now well over a half million.
Iraqi refugees have swept into Jordan twice – first in the early 1990s, when the Gulf War brought a wave of mostly middle-class Iraqis to the kingdom. The second wave came after the 2003 invasion.
The Jordanian Ministry of Planning’s recently drafted National Resilience Plan (NRP) maps a development-centric strategy. “Host communities, institutions, systems, infrastructure and services will soon reach their absorption capacities,” the introduction reads. It then launches into three-year strategies for investment in education, energy, health, housing, livelihoods and municipal services.
Urban planning is not glamorous. NRP policy recommendations lack the drama of Jordan’s iconic Zaatari Camp, built near the Syrian border three years ago and now famously Jordan’s fourth largest "city," home to almost 83,000 refugees. Media and U.N. agencies can more easily draw attention and funding to the camp, bringing in celebrities for emotional visits and hosting high-visibility programs like football tournaments and mural painting. But Jordan’s deeper problem is survival for low-income Jordanians and the urban refugees living among them, whose supposedly temporary asylum has dragged from months into years.
Why don’t refugees stay in camps? Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis and other non-Syrians don’t have the option. Syrians seeking asylum in Jordan are immediately recognized as refugees. Those crossing the land border are taken to a camp and given immediate relief and services.
Non-Syrians have no camps. Instead, they undergo Refugee Status Determination (RSD), a series of interviews meant to determine if they really are fleeing persecution. This process should take no more than three months, according to UNHCR. But it often drags on for much longer, with no notification of how long it’ll take and no legal means of self-support in the meantime.
Delays in processing breed resentment and tension between refugee populations and humanitarian agencies. “They lied to us,” said Qasim’s wife. They’ve been awaiting RSD for eight months, she said, surviving off charity and $225 sent by a sister living in Iraq’s Kurdish region for rent every month.
Across the city, a community of some 500 Somali refugees lives in the back streets of Jabal Amman, a popular area where upper-class Ammanis and expatriates mix.
“We are down. We are not like the Iraqis and Syrians,” said 42-year-old Abdulnasser Mohammad, who first fled from Somalia to Yemen before deteriorating security drove him to come to Jordan last year. Like most of the Somali community, he has no aid or access to services, but watches Syrians receive food coupons and free health care. “Why don’t they see us the same? There is racism.”
What the Iraqis call deceit and Somalis call racism appears from Jordanian ministers’ and UNHCR’s perspective more like overburdened bureaucracy and slow reform. “Zaatari is overserved. Everybody is there and wants to do something,” said an NGO worker who asked to remain anonymous. “But the majority of Syrians, who are living outside of camps, can’t reach services.”
Meanwhile, non-Syrian refugees feel forgotten. Jeff Crisp, former UNHCR head of policy development and evaluation, said that policy discussions have shifted toward urban planning, albeit slowly. “Camps make sense for donors, who like to have visible evidence of where their money’s going, and for host governments, who can dramatize the whole situation,” Crisp said. “Still, the general consensus is that camps are not a good idea.”
But swinging from camp to an urban focus comes with new challenges, like reach. Seventeen-year-old Adnan works at an appliance store in downtown Amman, moving stock from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for 1.5 Jordanian dinar (JD) an hour, just over $2. Adnan’s Syrian refugee status entitles him to two 12 JD food coupons per month. To retrieve them, though, he has to miss a workday and spend 3 JD on transportation each way. “It’s not worth it,” Adnan said.
“In most urban situations, very high proportions of refugees are making ends meet without much external support or assistance,” Crisp said. “The problem is these are not very secure or stable.” Informal livelihoods come at a high cost, especially for children missing an education. Even more dangerous is the threat of detainment, especially for lesser-known communities like the Sudanese and Somalis.
The NRP speaks of short-term job creation, supporting micro-enterprises and targeting livelihoods for women and youth. But this is only for the host community — not the refugees — whose wages have been pushed down by newcomers laboring below minimum wage.
‘In most urban situations, very high proportions of refugees are making ends meet without much external support or assistance. The problem is these are not very secure or stable.’
former head of policy development, UNHCR
According to Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, letting refugees work would bolster the economy. “It’s very clear in Jordan that Syrians have contributed a great deal to the economy,” said Chatty, whose academic center recently released a report on refugee potential to strengthen economies. Jordan just won’t admit it, Chatty said.
“If Jordan can show that refugees are draining their economy, then they tap into much greater international support,” she said. “It’s politics.”
The zero-sum assumption that every refugee job means one less Jordanian job is a false dichotomy, Crisp said. “Newcomers to any society, whether refugees or migrants, can create new economic opportunities.” But even if UNHCR and most donor states know that, he added, they’re unlikely to push Jordan too hard on letting refugees work, especially with regional crises all around.
Meanwhile, the vulnerable fight to survive.
Back in the Qasims’ home, Mohand sits on the floor, rolling a string of light blue beads one by one between his fingers. His 6-year-old son Mortada waves a battered stuffed bear at his father. Mohand stares straight ahead, eyes glazed.
“The doctors said he should go to a green, quiet place to recover,” Mohand’s wife said. “Inshallah we’ll find somewhere soon.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.