The Politics behind Refugee Aid

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The Middle East Research and Information Project, which produces the quarterly Middle East Report has a very interesting story online detailing the politics of aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan.

The complications of being a refugee are magnified when the country of refuge is Jordan.  A key U.S. ally, Jordan is placed (some might say unfortunately) between two of the greatest global flashpoints of the last decades.  On its west is the state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  The conflicts surrounding this area are well known, but many may not realize that Jordan’s population is made up of mostly Palestinians, products of displacement from wars in both 1948 and 1967.  With this exodus, Jordan has struggled to maintain its identity while also granting Palestinians citizenship.  It has also dealt with threats to its power from this very population, culminating in 1970 with what has become known as Black September, an armed uprising in which Palestinian militants sought to wrest control out of the hands of the monarchy.  King Hussein responded and the Jordanian Army, after intense fighting and severe casualties on both sides, expelled the PLO from Jordan, which had been their headquarters from which their militant fedayeen would launch attacks on Israel.

Now a new refugee population, Iraqis, fleeing another destructive war flooded into Jordan.  Times have obviously changed from those decades past, and the war in Iraq is a totally different situation that that of Israel and Palestine.  Jordan obviously did not want a repeat of their previous experience with a large refugee population.  Yet they were still refugees, with mouths to feed and services to be rendered.

Jordan however, is not a rich state, and another unfortunate condition from which it suffers is a lack of any high valued exportable goods, namely oil.  Thus Jordan strains to keep its population clothed and fed, and poverty is high.  One other obvious reality, which one will spot instantly when he or she travels to the capital of Amman is the almost abhorrent disparity of wealth.  I have myself spotted Audi supercars and Hummers roaming the streets of West Amman, an affluent  and westernized part of the city(i.e. there are two major shopping malls within miles of each other) while East Amman is a cramped and poverty stricken area, with little access to the thrills or ease of the western part of the city.

This disparity was also apparent in the Iraqis that had fled their country.  Considering the fact that they were still refugees, and were fleeing a war zone, in many cases to avoid death, those who were affluent made an easier adjustment  to life in West Amman than those who had fled the country with nothing and continued to struggle in East Amman.

This is where the politics comes in.  Jordan, with it’s previous experience with Palestinians, was unsure of what to expect of these new arrivals and treated them as a liability, one which could effect it’s economic standing and therefore siphon off what little Jordan did have to give its own citizens.  The monarchy therefore attempted to take a middle of the road approach from which it would seek to benefit as best it could.  It sought to paint many Iraqis as temporary guests, and not refugees, therefore curbing what it as a government would have to do to aid his population of refugees, But, as the article states:

It was readily apparent, however, that not everyone was a “guest.” In November 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report charging Jordan with trying to keep a large number of Iraqi refugees essentially invisible. [3] Wealthy Iraqis, the report established, were able to buy residency permits, and with them the right to live, work and gain access public services in Jordan. Those who could not afford this solution found themselves in limbo, with no legal status, no jobs, and little to no health care or education for their children. The authorities tolerated their presence, but these “guests” lived in constant fear of harassment or deportation

Yet, when it came to international aid, which Jordan relies on heavily, politics were again put to good use by Jordanian officials.  At the time, it was thought that almost three-quarters of a million Iraqis had fled to Jordan to escape the war, and for a country of six million this is a huge influx of people.  Initial Jordanian government decisions, such as labeling Iraqis as guests, follows that line of trepidation.  Apparently a survey was undertaken sometime in 2007 to determine the extent of the crisis.  Its findings were largely different, in terms of the number of Iraqis than expected.  Indeed, they were smaller than expected.  Yet by this time, the initial number that had been formulated had become ingrained in the discourse, and so with the discussion of aid to refugees in Jordan on the table, Jordanian officials were keen to keep their own numbers to themselves.

And so, as the article states, “the aid poured in.”

The obvious intention was to have most of the donor money spent specifically on Iraqis, yet this did not play out as it did on paper, and in any case it was impossible to ensure that all of the money  would be spent on Iraqis.  One of the factors in this was that the number of Iraqis in Jordan, much lower than expected, meant that when government programs were set up, mainly to benefit them,  the inverse actually took place.  It was Jordanians that were showing up in droves.

This issue highlights the complications related with the disbursement of refugee aid.  Jason Erb, who was deputy country director in Jordan for Save the Children during this period explained that

“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. Because of the restrictions on needing to meet certain percentages of Iraqi beneficiaries, we at first planned and programmed for numbers that were not there. The problem, I think, was that we had a kind of quota of Iraqis, and that was what led to the conflict…between agencies, stepping all over each other to find the last little pocket of Iraqis in Jordan.” In short: “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.”

In the larger scope of things, one cannot explicitly blame Jordan for what came to pass.  Although the number of Iraqi refugees there is smaller than previously thought, there is still a sizable group of Iraqi refugees that are suffering from their predicament, and who do not receive enough support from the government of aid agencies.  Jordan and the aid agencies that work within the country must continue to work to provide for these refugees without sacrificing assistance toward the Jordanian population as a whole.

The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan – Middle East Report


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