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Story Publication logo July 15, 2014

Iraq's Refugees Stuck in Jordan Aid Limbo


Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

How do refugees mobilize to take care of themselves when aid agencies fail, the international...


Ahmad Mohammad fled from Mosul when Isis shot six bullets through his car. Two months after entering Jordan, Ahmad lives in a dilapidated apartment with his wife and three children.

They survive on assistance from a nearby church but receive no formal aid because they are technically not yet refugees.

"We are all tired. We don't know what to do," said Ahmad, whose mother and sister are still in Mosul. They cannot leave and Ahmad, who has death threats from Isis saved in texts on his phone, cannot return to Iraq.

"They are afraid and I'm gone," he said, swiping his hands in a 'finished' motion. "I'm dead in Iraq."

Ahmad is one of the 1,596 Iraqi asylum seekers who registered with the United Nation's refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Jordan over the last two months.

Unlike the 600,000 Syrians also seeking refuge in Jordan, Iraqis do not have camps, earmarked aid, or automatic refugee status.

Most live in overcrowded clusters on the outskirts and alleys of Amman, forbidden to work and surviving on a combination of savings and aid from grassroots NGOs.

Surviving without aid

Iraq's recent surge of chaos has displaced over one million Iraqis, the UN estimates, most seeking refuge in the northern Kurdish region.

But Jordan's Iraqi refugee population is also on the rise. Midway through 2014, the 6,144 newly registered Iraqis have already exceeded last year's total, with numbers doubling between May and June.

UNHCR requested $31.5m (£18.4m) to assist all non-Syrian refugees, Iraqis and others, in 2014. The requested budget for Syrians was $274m.

"Unfortunately, this number is just the money we need. It's not money we have in the bank," said UNHCR spokesperson Helene Daubelcour.

In 2013, UNHCR received only 64% of its required budget.

For refugees, lack of funding means delayed processing and insufficient aid. For Iraqis, it often means extended periods without any aid at all.

Nada Qasim fled from Baghdad in November with her seven children and husband, targeted by extremists for having worked with American soldiers.

Paint flakes off the walls of the bare apartment that they pay $225 per month to rent. Nada's sister, married to a Kurd in northern Iraq, sends them rent money each month. The family depends on charities for everything else.

Syrians entering are given prima facie refugee recognition. That is, UNHCR registers Syrians immediately so they can access food, healthcare and education services.

Iraqis, along with other minority refugee populations - Sudanese, Somalis and others - receive aid on a case-by-case basis, determined through vulnerability assessments that take an indeterminate amount of time.

"Ninety percent of Iraqis I deal with don't receive any money anymore," said Haifa Hourani, an employee at an organisation that works with Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement.

"If you're not a widow or divorced woman alone with children, they probably won't give you anything."

'Go away'

Iraqis had prima facie status until September 2012, when they became subject to the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, a series of interviews meant to determine if asylum seekers really are fleeing death.

Only those who pass RSD are eligible for aid, which depends on another round of evaluations.

"The RSD process has recently been changed, so it takes no more than three months to determine refugee status," said Ms Daubelcour.

"It's not a regulation, though. The process is based on our capacity. We go as fast as we can."

But Nada's family has been in limbo for eight months.

"When we call UNHCR, they just say, 'Wait,' and hang up. Even when we go to the offices, they tell us to go away," Nada said.

"We don't know if we are waiting a month, a year, two years or 10."

Numbers growing

Some 29,072 Iraqi refugees are currently in Jordan, a quarter of whom have been stuck here since 2006 or earlier.

Forbidden from employment and unable to go home, most scrape by on illegal work and hope for resettlement to the United States, a process also trammelled by the Syrian crisis.

"Iraqi cases used to be much faster. Within a year you'd be done," said Ms Hourani.

"Now it might take three or four years before you know you're rejected, and there's a waiting time before that to even register."

The stream of Iraqis entering Jordan doesn't compare to the Syrian influx. Nor does it resemble 2007, when 31,000 Iraqis sought refuge here.

But the numbers are growing, and if they should swell, UNHCR says they are ready to help.

"Our job is to be ready for movement of people fleeing violence and persecution," said Ms Daubelcour.

"Just like we responded to the Syria influx, and to Iraqis when they came to Jordan some years ago, we would respond."

In the meantime, those Iraqis already here are still waiting.

Names have been changed for security reasons.


teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

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