Six years after Iraq invasion, Jordan still playing host to thousands of Iraqi refugees

Jordan struggles to absorb Iraqis who are still coming in, despite improved conditions at home.

An Iraqi waiter served tea at an Iraqi restaurant in Amman, Jordan. Six years after Saddam Hussein was ousted by the United States, Iraqis are still present in large numbers in Jordan and Syria, which have struggled with the influx.

Raida Ali was holding out hope for things to get better in Baghdad. But when her family was directly threatened, they decided it was time to get out. Raida is Shiite and her husband, Mohamed, is Sunni – which was, once upon a time, a common enough situation for a family living in Dora, a mixed neighborhood of Baghdad which turned into a front-line battleground. Kidnappings, murders, suicide bombings, and ongoing offensives pitting the US Army against insurgents were the norm.

"We received a letter threatening us. They slipped it under the door. It said, 'Leave Iraq or you will all be killed, including your children,'" she recalls as her kids ogle a television tuned to the Cartoon Network. Her sister's husband had disregarded a similar letter. He was kidnapped and never heard from again.

So Mrs. Ali, her husband, Mohammed, and their four children arrived here in the Jordanian capital just over a year ago, having endured unrelenting violence since the US toppled the Iraqi regime six years ago this week.

Since they left, a US troop surge and heightened counterinsurgency efforts have led to a substantial drop in violence – and a drop in front-page news stories covering the side-effects of the Iraq war. But here in Jordan, where only 300 of as many as half-a-million refugees have returned home, Iraqis are still trickling across the border.

"An interesting trend is that there are still new arrivals from Iraq," says Rafiq Tschannen, the chief of mission in Amman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). "And contrary to the first arrivals, we see people going to live in villages instead of Amman, where the cost of living is high. These refugees have less money and they look to the cheapest villages they can find."

While the couple have stuck to Amman, they live – albeit illegally – in a quiet, working-poor neighborhood of the capital called Mahata. They are hardly able to come up with the rent of about $150 a month because neither of them is permitted to work. Mohammed, Raida's husband, sleeps by day and works by night in whatever menial labor he can find. But at least the oldest two of their four children – 10-year-old Qusay and 9-year-old Latifa – are in school. No explosions, no disappearances, no menacing notes under the door.

Jordan is first stop for refugees

The UNHCR says that 4.7 million Iraqis have left their homes since the war began, up from 3.8 million two years ago. Iraqis are the leading nationality seeking asylum in Europe. And whatever their dreams – making a new life in the West or waiting out the worst until Iraq becomes livable again – Iraqi refugees generally land first on Jordan's doorstep.

It is almost impossible to estimate how many Iraqis are now living in Jordan, immigration officials say, because the vast majority of them are undocumented. FAFO, a Norwegian group, gave the estimate of a half-a-million Iraqis living in Jordan in its last study, but others say that number was has receded, due to acceptance for resettlement in other countries. The UNHCR says in its most recent report that more than 54,000 Iraqis are registered with them as refugees in Jordan, compared with more than 221,000 in neighboring Syria.

Some Iraqis here are intentionally staying off Jordan's radar screen for fear of deportation. And then there are people like Raida and Mohammed, who left in a hurry without obtaining passports, and find themselves unable to prove who they are to obtain refugee status. Others are actively seeking visas to points further west, in Europe and the US – but some who made it, says Mr. Tschannen, are now returning because they found it impossible to find work in the midst of the global economic downturn.

Although it doesn't easily give residency permits to Iraqi refugees, and few will be allowed to stay permanently, Jordan has been relatively hospitable to the refugees. For the second year, Jordan is allowing Iraqi children to attend public schools and is waiving the fines charged by the government to those who have overstayed their allowed time in Jordan.

But even the temporary hospitality has put a strain on the country's limited resources, say Jordanian officials.

"Jordan has taken a decision as well to extend a waiver of the overstay fines for Iraqis, and this is costing the Jordanian Treasury $270 million this year," says Nabil el-Sharif, the minister of state for media affairs.

"The king has taken extraordinary measures to facilitate the stay of Iraqis, and these measures of course have placed an enormous burden on Jordanian services," he adds. "This becomes more acute if we consider that there [are] probably half-a-million refugees here living off Jordanian services, sending their kids to Jordanian schools, going to clinics, and the like. That's about one-tenth of the Jordanian population, which is costing us about a billion Jordanian dinars ($1.4 billion) annually. There is support from the international community, but it's not enough."

Last month, the Obama administration announced additional funds for displaced Iraqis in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, bringing the US commitment so far this year to roughly $150 million; in 2008, the US contributed $400 million, reported.

"The government of Jordan is committed to providing Iraqis in Jordan with decent living conditions, and has taken huge steps to make sure they have access to government services, such as public schools and health clinics," Mr. el-Sharif says. "But the ultimate solution for Iraqis is in their voluntary return to Iraq."

Some refugees may be taking that step, but their numbers are fewer than rumored, says Tschannen of the IOM.

"The actual number of people who we know of who went back to Iraq are 300 in Jordan, and 500 to 600 from Syria," he says. "But no one has exact figures of how many are actually here."

'No hope left for us in Iraq'

One Iraqi refugee, another relatively recent arrival to Jordan, is Araz Hambersom Udik, who left Baghdad two years ago. He and his wife are Armenian Christians, and found their entire community decimated. Their church was attacked on several occasions, and he lost count of how many friends and family members were killed or kidnapped. He says he was threatened by the Mahdi Army, a militant Shiite group, and told to leave.

"It's very hard to survive here, because we're not allowed to work," says Mr. Udik, an electrician. He finds work where he can in an area of Amman to which many Iraqi Christians have fled – and one that is already starting to empty out as many people receive visas for America. Udik says he expects to head to Los Angeles, where his wife's family has moved, in the next few months; they've already been approved for immigration to the US.

"There's no hope left for us in Iraq, and nobody's even thinking of returning" – no one he knows, at least, says Udik. "I know I'm never going back again."

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