Jordan Becomes a Doubtful Refuge

AMMAN — Hundreds of thousands have fled the violence in Iraq to seek refuge in Jordan, but refugees are now beginning to find its borders closing.

Jordan and Syria are the only two countries where fleeing Iraqis can hope to find shelter. Western countries have shut their doors to Iraqi nationals – even to refugees.

And now much the same is happening with Jordan too.

“I had major eye surgery in Jordan, but my doctor told me it failed and so I need to have it re-operated,” Ahmad Khalaf of Saqlawiya, 62 km west of Baghdad told IPS. “I arrived at the Iraqi-Jordanian crossing point with my medical reports and a letter from the hospital in Jordan demanding my arrival in Amman on a certain date in order to remedy the damage of the previous operation.”

Khalaf found what tens of thousands of Iraqis are now finding when they attempt to enter Jordan. “The Jordanian boarder authorities turned me back without telling me why, leaving me to face the unknown.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month. UNHCR estimates that approximately 700,000 Iraqis are currently living in Jordan and another 600,000 in Syria — although many experts believe the real numbers are higher, given the numbers leaving every month.

The UNHCR estimates also that there are more than 1.5 million internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

Several Iraqis told IPS that Jordanian authorities had shut their doors tight since the day Saddam Hussein was executed. Many believe this was requested by the Iraqi government.

Border authorities in Jordan have been getting progressively tougher over recent months.

“When Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki visited Jordan last year, Jordanian authorities became stricter, and half of those who intended to cross the border were refused entry,” a grocery merchant who usually buys his merchandise from Jordan told IPS. “After (Iraqi Minister of Interior) Jawad Bolani visited Jordan near the end of 2006, they practically rejected 95 percent of Iraqis.”

Earlier in 2006 Jordan shut its border to Iraqi men between the ages of 17 and 35, as well as to a growing number of Palestinian refugees who had been living in Iraq under the protection of former president Saddam Hussein. Most Palestinians living in Iraq have been evicted by Shia death squads. The massive influx of Iraqis into Jordan before border controls were tightened has severely strained the infrastructure of Jordan, which was already suffering economically. Schools and hospitals in particular have felt the weight of hundreds of thousands of new residents.

“Our small country cannot afford to take in more Iraqis,” 30-year-old Jordanian Ahmad Trawne from Amman told IPS. “We sympathise with our Iraqi brothers, but they are now a burden on our poor country.”

Jordanian citizens are complaining that rich Iraqi immigrants have brought inflation to Jordanian markets. The real estate business has flourished, but prices have increased to levels that make it difficult for most Jordanians to buy or even rent properties in central areas of capital Amman.

Areas like the Gardens, Shmaissani and western Amman saw an almost 200 percent increase in value in 2006. Prices of food and basic services have also risen considerably.

Nevertheless, many Iraqis still feel it is the duty of Jordanians to allow in refugees.

“This country was built by our money,” a 60-year-old Iraqi teacher in Amman told IPS. “Saddam gave Jordan free oil and opened the Iraqi borders for them, and now they are not allowing us to live in their country. We are not asking them for any financial help because all Iraqis bring their own money with them. Many sold their properties in Iraq so that they could live in dignity.”

Iraqis who fail to cross the border are forced to go back because there are no hotels near the border. They cannot travel inside Iraq after sunset for fear of U.S. patrols, so they have to stay overnight in parking lots of highway restaurants, where it can be very cold at night.

It is becoming increasingly difficult also to find room for the hundreds of thousands moving to another location within Iraq. The UNHCR issued a warning Jan. 9 that the scale of internal displacement of Iraqis was beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including the UNHCR. It declared that a humanitarian crisis looms in Iraq beyond that anticipated by aid agencies at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The UNHCR added that the longer the displacement continues, the more difficult it would become as the internally displaced and their host communities in Iraq run out of resources.

(Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent, recently in Amman. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.)