In Jordan, aid for Iraqi refugees is often redirected

Millions in aid money intended to help war refugees is also helping improve Jordan's beleaguered infrastructure.

Nicholas Seeley
Waiting: An Iraqi girl last week scanned a list of families eligible for food aid from the Jordan Alliance Against Hunger.

Forbidden to work, Iraqi war refugees here are poor and getting poorer. Waiting lists for food and cash assistance have grown into the thousands.

But while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is looking to donors for money to meet these needs, a large portion of the aid already provided has gone to address Jordan's own urgent national priorities.

In 2007, 61 percent of UNHCR's operational budget was given directly to Jordan, along with millions in bilateral aid from the European Community and the United States. This is a kind of trickle-down development in which helping host countries helps refugees.

But with budgets squeezed by rising fuel and food prices, some experts are questioning how much Iraqis are benefiting from international funds that are not going directly to refugee services but instead to the Jordanian government. While aid agencies are focused on the benefits of the work Jordan's government has done, some officials worry that not meeting Iraqis basic needs could disastrously shatter expectations.

"We feel that we've finally built some credibility with our [Iraqi] beneficiaries, and we worry about the consequences of not being able to deliver," says Imran Riza, the Jordan representative for UNHCR.

In late 2007, Jordan told aid groups that "the financial support provided by donor countries and agencies must be channeled directly to the government of Jordan ... to ensure the strengthening of institutional capacities and the expansion and development of services."

The government said Iraqis here are "regarded as guests," not refugees, "and hence all concerned parties must work on facilitating the appropriate conditions that will ensure their return to Iraq."

One significant area in which Jordan has benefited from donor aid is its overburdened educational system. As the UNHCR raised $11.2 million to educate Iraqi children in Jordan ($10 million of which it gave to Jordan's education ministry), the government agreed to allow Iraqi students to register for school.

The UN and aid agencies praised the decision, and more money followed: In December, the European Community gave about $39 million to Jordan to support education for Iraqis over three years; the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided another $8 million. The UN Children's Fund paid school fees for more than 9,000 children.

But for the 2007-08 school year, fewer than 20,000 Iraqi students were enrolled in the public schools. While the yearly cost of educating a student was estimated by the government at about $800 a year, Jordan received more than $2,100 in aid for every Iraqi student in 2007.

Jordan's schools also remain an inhospitable place for Iraqi children. A recent assessment by Save the Children and Vancouver University found that many Iraqi children in Jordan go to school, but find it a "difficult and dangerous place" where they are subjected to "violence and discrimination at school by Jordanian students, administrators and teachers."

Mr. Riza says that along with helping Iraqis, their priority is to help Jordan cope with its education system.

Dennis Walto, country director of Save the Children, which worked closely with the government to register Iraqis for school, says that when registration opened for the 2007-08 school year, "We found that there was a need for more and better facilities and even a need for schools to consider running a double shift."

But, he says, there wasn't the influx of Iraqis many had perhaps expected.

Also, while government officials refer to 500,000 or even 1 million Iraqis in public statements and requests for aid, a recent survey done by the Jordanian Department of Statistics and the Norwegian organization Fafo indicated there were probably only 161,000 Iraqis still in Jordan. The UNHCR has registered fewer than 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers.

Education is not the only sector where Jordan has received substantial assistance.

UNHCR gave another $10 million to Jordan's Health Ministry in 2007. Given this support, Jordan said Iraqis could get primary healthcare in public hospitals at low fees. Many of the poorest still go to nongovernmental clinics run by UNHCR's partners, where care is free.

The UN has yet to meet its funding goals for 2008. With prices rising, funds for basic aid, like food assistance to needy families, are short. In 2007, a supplementary food package for a family cost $70. This year it costs $113.

To cut costs, UNHCR recently reduced the caloric content of their food packages, from about 1,300 calories per person, per day, to 1,100. Jordanians are hard-hit by price hikes, too, and nearly all the organizations working with Iraqis are giving a portion of their aid to Jordanian families – in most cases between 20 and 30 percent.

With little sign that Iraqis will be able to return to their country in the immediate future, aid agencies continue to emphasize the moral responsibility to help those displaced by the war.

"It is incumbent on us, in the US [and Britain] especially, not to let the Iraq issue fade with the autumn leaves," says Mr. Walto.

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