– 2006-10-24 08:55:11
Aid Effort Buckling before Flood of Iraqi Refugees
UN Tries to Cope in Jordan as Donor Nations Cut Funding
Phil Sands / San Francsico Chronicle Foreign Service
AMMAN, Jordan (October 24, 2006) — Iraqis fleeing violence in their war-torn country are overwhelming the dwindling assistance that is available, says the head of mission for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Jordan.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Robert Breen, the UNHCR representative in Amman, said it is “impossible” to cope with the exodus from Iraq, and cautioned that the situation is likely to get worse.
“This has been building up over a three-year period,” he said in an interview at his office in Jordan’s capital. “The water level has slowly risen, and now all the Iraqis are barely keeping their heads above the surface.”
According to U.N. estimates, between 500,000 and 700,000 Iraqis now live in or around Amman. Some 800,000 Iraqis are in Syria already, and at least 40,000 more have arrived in each of the past four months. Iraq’s other neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have absorbed about 100,000 displaced people.
Yet as the flow of refugees has increased, international aid has decreased from $150 million three years ago to $29 million in 2006. In Breen’s words, this has left the United Nations “powerless.”
“We cannot keep up our work at this rate,” he said. “There is a huge problem and no mechanism to deal with it.”
Just 700 refugees are processed and listed for relocation by the UNHCR’s Amman office each year, out of a total case load of 19,000 people, all but 200 of them Iraqi. Even if no more asylum seekers arrived in Jordan, it would take almost 30 years for the existing backlog to be cleared at the present rate.
Because Iraqis have considerable freedom to move in and out of Jordan and Syria, the full scope of the problem has remained hidden until recently. Iraqis are granted three-month entry visas, rent homes and don’t ask the United Nations for help. They simply stay on after their visa has expired, fending for themselves, living off savings, borrowing money from friends or trying to scrape together a living by working at odd jobs they are not legally permitted to hold.
Life in the shadows, without access to education, medicine or recourse to the law, puts families under enormous pressure. Reports of domestic violence in exiled Iraqi families are starting to spike, as frustrated men apparently take out their anger on wives and children, according to U.N. officials.
Abu Haider, a 30-year-old who arrived from southern Iraq two years ago after receiving a death threat from a Shiite militia, said he had not registered with the refugee agency.
“My friends signed with the United Nations, but they have been stuck here for six years,” he said. “I can’t see the point so I’ll stay here as long as I can. If I get arrested, I’ll be deported back to Iraq and probably killed.”
Refugees have been a potentially explosive issue in Jordan since the establishment of the neighboring state of Israel in 1947. More than 60 percent of Jordan’s population are Palestinians, many of whom have been granted citizenship. However, Jordanian law prohibits other refugees from formally settling down. Legally, they are supposed to be relocated within six months to a third country in Europe, Australia, Asia or the United States. But so far, only a few hundred Iraqis have been relocated each year. A high-ranking Jordanian government official, speaking to The Chronicle on condition of anonymity, described the situation as “a disaster.”
“We’ve had a flood of refugees here,” he said, “but what the world does for them is pathetic. We are a small and poor country and we do what we can to accommodate them. No one else seems interested. There’s no money; they have to live in hopeless conditions.
“We thought they’d be here for three or four months, but they’re all here three years later and more are coming.”
Officially the border with Iraq remains open, but anecdotal reports indicate increasing numbers of Iraqis are being turned away.
“We had a family of 10 trying to get across recently,” the Jordanian official said. “Five women and children were allowed across, the five men were sent away. They were military age and maybe terrorists. We have our own security concerns.”
Jordan’s economy, already weak, is feeling the strain of more than half-a-million Iraqi refugees. Competition for jobs is fierce, housing costs have soared, and Amman is becoming more congested by the month.
Overall, the United Nations estimates 1.5 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq, fleeing their homes as sectarian strife creeps into previously ethnically mixed areas.
“The concern is that with the increasing instability in Iraq, the number of those fleeing will rise,” said Breen. “If they have any money, the right documents, or any other way, they are moving. The worse it gets, the more people will leave.”
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