Jordan’s Other Refugees

As Jordan struggles to register and aid the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, minority asylum seekers like the Sudanese are left for long interim periods without recognition or aid. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

A Syrian family walks down the street in Azraq, Jordan. More than 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas outside the refugee camps, preferring some agency over their lives despite the added difficulties of paying rent and accessing services. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

A pair of sisters from Homs shows the World Food Program vouchers they use to purchase food in Azraq Camp. Syrian refugees in Jordan receive 24 JD in vouchers each month. These are valid for basic food items—lentils, rice, and sugar, for example—but not unnecessary items like ice cream or chocolate. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Syrian refugees walk toward their accommodations in Azraq Camp, the second UNHCR camp for Syrians in Jordan. Opened this spring, Azraq now houses almost 11,000 Syrians. Zaatari Camp, closer to the border in the north, hosts some 80,000 Syrian refugees. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

A two-month old child sleeps in Azraq Camp. She is one of more than 600,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in Jordan since the conflict began in 2011. Supplies were limited in the first few days of Azraq’s opening, with no baby formula available. This baby girl hadn’t eaten anything in two days, her mother said, until one of the NGO workers brought infant formula from outside the camp. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Palestinian refugee children in Jerash camp, one of several UNRWA camps in Jordan that host about 2 million Palestinian refugees—one third of Jordan’s population. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

The children in Jerash Camp were born into refugee status in Jordan, second- or third-generation Palestinians living without access to full citizenship rights. These Palestinians have been joined recently by an influx of Palestinian refugees from Syria, who likewise need refuge but have been increasingly denied at the borders or deported by Jordanian authorities. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

A pair of Sudanese men rest on the roof of a building halfway up the hills of Jabal Amman, overlooking the capital city. Most Sudanese refugees live in the back alleys and overcrowded neighborhoods of Jordan’s cities. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

A poster of King Abdullah II hangs over the unit where about 30 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers live together, pooling their resources and informal incomes for survival. “That poster was here when we came,” one man says, adding that most of the Sudanese have experienced daily discrimination and racism from Jordanians. “They call us ‘chocolate’ or ‘Abu Samra,’” he says, a derogatory term for dark-skinned people. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Young, single Sudanese men from the Darfur region often end up living in “shbab” houses like this one, where 20-30 refugees pool their informal incomes to split the rent and pay for one meal a day. They cook together and usually eat either lentils or beans. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Men from the Jabal Nuba region of Sudan show their asylum seeker cards, marking appointment dates with the UNHCR. After the men register as asylum seekers, they often wait a year or more for a refugee status determination interview. In the meantime, they are not legally allowed to work, and many fear walking on the streets in open daylight. “The police will take us to prison if they see us working,” one man said. “But if we don’t work, how will we pay for rent and food?” Most Sudanese survive on day-to-day labor in construction or cleaning jobs. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Besides the 2 million Palestinian refugees, 600,000 Syrians, and 29,000 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, some 4,000 refugees from other countries have also sought asylum here. Most are from Sudan, especially the Darfur region. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

As the UNHCR struggles to process the influx of refugees from surrounding crises, it has sped up registration processes for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Other populations, however, suffer extended waits in the meantime without official status or access to aid. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Sudanese refugees pool informal incomes to split rent in urban areas like Amman, where up to 30 asylum seekers will live together in one unit. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Fatima (name changed) came from Darfur with three children and is seven months pregnant. Unable to work formally, her husband struggles to pay rent on a home with leaky ceilings. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

One of Fatima’s children sleeps in the family’s home. Behind his bed, the walls are damp and infested with mold. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Winter is difficult, especially for Sudanese refugees, who are unused to Jordan’s cold and snow. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

As extremist forces rise in Iraq, many Iraqis who worked with Western forces are targeted. Ahmad (name changed) was threatened for having worked as a chef with U.S. troops. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Ahmad’s twin daughters have just turned seven years old. The family fled Mosul, Iraq in March to seek refuge in a crowded part of east Amman. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Mohand (name changed) was beaten by Iraqi extremists in 2010 for having worked as a janitor with American forces. His family fled to Syria for refuge, but had to leave when conflict broke out there in 2011. Facing renewed threats from extremists in Baghdad, Mohand came to Jordan eight months ago with his wife and seven children. He suffers mental illness and does not work. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Mohand and his wife live in Amman with seven children. They receive no regular assistance from UN agencies or NGOs, but a relative sends $200 to them from Iraqi Kurdistan every month, just enough to pay the rent. They rely on grassroots charities and development groups for food and other expenses. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

Jordan has taken in wave after wave of refugees from surrounding countries as violence rips across the region: so far, more than 600,000 Syrians since 2011, along with some 29,000 Iraqis, 2 million Palestinians, and about 4,000 asylum seekers from Sudan, Somalia, and other countries. As crises escalate, Jordan’s government and the UNHCR are struggling to maintain stability while responding to overwhelming need. Meanwhile, refugees and asylum seekers grow desperate, many having fled death only to enter an indefinite competition of vulnerability.

The multiple refugee waves have affected the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process in Jordan, as different populations are put through varying processes and waiting times to receive asylum. While Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the kingdom has a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR that allows the UN agency to operate in Jordan and promises non-refoulement—that is, a guarantee against sending refugees and asylum seekers back to their countries of conflict.

Asylum seekers—persons fleeing persecution in their own country—usually undergo a standardized individual RSD interview before attaining refugee status and accessing attendant services like cash assistance and eligibility for resettlement. Up until then, they live in the host country without assistance or the right to work, protected from being sent back into war but otherwise left to survive on their own.

In Jordan, the UNHCR has devised differentiated RSD strategies to handle the various refugee populations. Syrians, for example, are under temporary protection status. Since 2013, any Syrian who approaches the UNHCR will receive same-day registration as an asylum seeker, allowing them access to regular food assistance, medical aid and eligibility for resettlement. Some 92,000 Syrians living in Zaatari and Azraq Camps have tents or temporary shelters provided by the UNHCR. The roughly 517,000 Syrians in urban areas outside, though, still must pay rent while barred from most legal employment.

As for Iraqis, at least 29,000 of them are seeking refuge in Jordan, a quarter of whom have been here since 2006 or earlier. Refugee numbers have grown since extremist-related violence flared across Iraq this summer, with the number of Iraqi asylum seekers almost doubling from May to June. Iraqis were under prima facie status up until December 2012, meaning the general violence in Iraq gave Iraqi asylum seekers group recognition as refugees without needing individual RSD. When Iraq seemed relatively calm in 2013, the UNHCR replaced this with a simplified RSD procedure: Iraqis register as asylum seekers, wait until their RSD interviews, then get a same-day decision on their status, according to UNHCR RSD officer Khalid Halim.

The UNHCR has been prioritizing some arrivals, particularly from ISIS-affected areas like Anbar and Salahuddin. The organization has also developed a set of Iraqi profiles so interviewers can quickly identify refugee statuses, shortening the RSD interview from 2 hours to 45 minutes. If the asylum seeker is a Christian from Mosul, for example, there’s little need to question further if he really needs refuge or not. Still, the average waiting period between asylum registration and RSD was six weeks in the spring of 2014. With the growing number of Iraqis now, a newcomer this month would likely have his RSD appointment in December, Halim said.

In addition to these two groups, approximately 4,000 more refugees, mostly from Sudan and Somalia, are also in Jordan. These asylum seekers undergo regular RSD, first waiting several days or weeks for asylum seeker status, then getting an appointment for their interview depending on the number of other asylum seekers waiting in line. If a newcomer from Darfur registered for RSD today, Halim estimated, his interview would likely be set in 2015. After that, the asylum seekers wait 30-60 days for the UNHCR to decide their refugee status.

This is the standard RSD process that most asylum seekers around the world go through. From a minority refugee’s perspective, though, waiting for a year or more while watching other asylum seekers receive quick access to aid is painful. “Why do Syrians get all the aid?” 24-year-old Sudanese refugee Ahmad asks. “We are hungry too, we have no camps or jobs, and we need help.”

Unable to support themselves financially, asylum seekers waiting for a decision can request one-time financial assistance from the UNHCR, pending a home visit and individual vulnerability assessment. This applies to all asylum seekers but Syrians, whose temporary protection status gives them immediate access to aid from the first day they register. For the others the assistance, if granted, is usually about 100 Jordanian dinars, Halim said. If rejected, they can appeal the decision within 30 days; the second decision is final. If the status is granted, refugees become eligible for resettlement and potential regular assistance, on a case-by-case vulnerability assessment.

In the meantime, asylum seekers vie for survival with each other and with Jordan’s overburdened host communities. As Jordan’s trade and tourism sectors suffer from its neighbors’ political instability, its economy struggles to keep up with infrastructural needs. Refugees add pressure to the kingdom’s already strained water, electricity, and employment provisions. Without a legal way for refugees to become self-sufficient, their need only grows. But funding is insufficient. As of mid-July, the UNHCR had only received 42 percent of its $305.4 million appeal for Jordan this year.

In recent months, Jordan drafted a National Resilience Plan that targets host community investment and development to bolster Jordan’s education, energy, health, water, housing, and security sectors. The plan also depends on foreign funding, however, with a request for $2.48 billion in support over the next three years. The United States, the largest humanitarian aid donor in the Syrian crisis, recently pledged an additional $84 million to help Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan. In the meantime, the UNHCR is doing what it can. Most of its staff has moved into a new building, leaving its former four-floor office exclusively to resettlement and RSD for Syrian refugees. As the agency tries to process asylum requests, grassroots NGOs provide temporary assistance from food supplies to scholarship opportunities.

Still, refugee communities are restless, especially when they see aid diverted to each new crisis that arises. Abu Faris sits on the floor before an old television set, watching a news anchor announce humanitarian relief operations for the Yezidis trapped in Iraq. “So now they help the Iraqis. Curse Daash,” the 71-year-old Syrian spat out the Arabic acronym for the extremist group ISIS. “But what about us?”

A few streets away, Ahmad has been living in an apartment with twenty other Sudanese asylum seekers for seven months, none of whom receive humanitarian assistance. They risk detainment to work on a day-to-day basis, pooling informal incomes from construction and cleaning jobs to pay for rent and daily meals of lentils or beans. “There is security in Jordan,” Ahmad says. “But nothing else.”

*Refugees’ names have been changed for their protection.