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Why millions in US aid may help few Iraqi refugees in the end

New Jordanian schools, built in part with US aid for Iraqi refugees, may end up serving few Iraqis. But some say that's OK – Jordanians often needed more help.

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"The schools in East Amman, where the most vulnerable populations were, just didn't have very many Iraqis," says Jason Erb, assistant country director for Save the Children in Jordan during the refugee crisis.

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US, UN give aid straight to Jordanian government

The number of Iraqis in Jordan has been contested since the crisis began. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the Jordan office of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, prepared for a flood of refugees fleeing the conflict. But Iraqis only trickled in slowly, fleeing persecution, looking for jobs, or waiting until things got better back home.

So UNHCR was surprised, in 2006, when some of its partner agencies started reporting substantial numbers of displaced Iraqis coming to them for aid. Early guesses suggested there were between 500,000 and 1 million Iraqis in the country.

At first, Jordan seemed dismissive of the reports, and was accused by human rights groups of trying to hide a huge refugee crisis.

But as the US and other international donors scrambled to respond, the crisis turned into a source of cash: From 2007 to 2009, Jordan received close to $400 million in aid officially directed toward Iraqis, much of which went either to the Jordanian government directly, or into programs like USAID's school construction program.

The lion's share of the aid came from the US. In 2008, Congress authorized $200 million in supplemental aid funding for Iraqi refugees; $110 million went straight to the Jordanian government, another $45 million went to existing USAID programs working in the water, health, and education sectors. UNHCR also gave 61 percent of its budget to the Jordanian government in 2007.

US and UN officials say that the aid contributed to creating "protection space" for Iraqis, meaning access to some basic services and protection from harassment and deportation.

Number of Iraqis likely far lower than estimated

A 2007 survey found only 161,000 Iraqis in Jordan, a fraction of whom appeared to be poor or persecuted people who needed aid or asylum.

Other data have backed up the low estimate of the survey – carried out by the Norwegian NGO Fafo and Jordan's Department of Statistics – including the number of Iraqis registered in schools, and the number registered as refugees with UNHCR.

USAID officials said in 2008 they were aware of the number of Iraqis in the individual schools they're working on, but they had been asked by the Jordanian government not to share that information because it was "sensitive."

Support for 'community approach'

Some say that giving aid to one group of people in a poor neighborhood, but not their neighbors, could cause a backlash, and that supporting Jordan's institutions was actually the best way to help displaced Iraqis.

"It's the best approach to improving education and health care," Knott says. "It's a community approach, and that's what our programs are designed to undertake."

Mr. Erb argues that the aid program, though imperfect, did help those who needed it the most; it's just that those were often Jordanians, not Iraqis.

"If you looked at donor intention, it might not really have hit the nail on the head. But that shouldn't be the only applicable standard, when the needs of everyone around are so much greater," he says. "As much as Iraqi refugees needed the assistance, it was frustrating sometimes that we had to focus so much on the Iraqis, because there was often greater need among Jordanians."

A longer version of this article appeared in the Middle East Report, Issue 256.


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