Jordan’s Second Tsunami

Published Friday, August 22, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(AMMAN, JORDAN) The devastation from three wars in Iraq is not confined to Iraq. Over two million Iraqis have fled their county. (Another 2 million have left their homes in Iraq, but stayed inside its borders.) Neighboring Jordan has accepted half a million of those displaced Iraqis. But don’t call them refugees. Jordan refers to them as “guests,” because they offered refugee status to Palestinians as a temporary solution in 1948. That temporary solution is now 60 years old, Palestinians comprise almost half the Jordanian population, and Jordan has the highest refugee/guest population per capita in the world.

One out of every ten people in Jordan is a guest of the government. The real number may be one out of every eight. In addition, 42 percent of the Palestinian diaspora have settled in Jordan. Native-born Jordanians may comprise the majority of the country’s residents, but it’s close. Jordan is understandably wary of a second human tsunami lapping over its borders.

Eighteen months ago, Jordan closed its border with Iraq, adopting a policy that can be likened to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They tolerate new foreigners among them, while refusing to acknowledge them. What was intended as “benign neglect” is becoming less benign for everyone involved.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2005 about the growing problem of urban refugees. The pay rent, they buy groceries, they take busses. But they cannot work, because they have no legal status. Jobs for Jordanians are scarce as it is. Unemployment hovers around 15 percent.

Now Jordan is experiencing other shortages as well. The power grid is being strained. Water security is bad and getting worse, in the face of a two-year drought. Bread and gasoline costs have skyrocketed. The cost of heating oil has doubled since last winter.

Successful families from Iraq have been accepted into neighboring countries, but at a terrible cost. In the case of Jordan, Iraqis seeking residency must bring $150,000 with them. That money is then deposited in an account that is immediately frozen. Anything they need to live can be drawn from their funds that exceed this amount. (Remember — they are not allowed to work.)

Resettling to the United States or Australia or other western countries offer a better alternative, but the numbers are extremely limited and the standards employed are inscrutable at best.

America’s Department of Homeland Security creates an extra layer of contradictory rules because of Public Law 107-56 (entitled the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” but commonly referred to as the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act). This law forbids providing any material aid to any terrorist organization. A ransom paid to free a kidnapped family member runs afoul of this law.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that one in four families in Baghdad have been victimized by a kidnapping where ransom was required. It’s not a small problem.

UNHCR has attempted to intervene, but with only occasional success. “We’ve been able to occasionally secure a waiver for ransoms that have been paid,” reports UNHCR Deputy Representative Arafat Jamal, “but this doesn’t apply to situations where victims had to ask for help from others to raise the money. Homeland Security categorizes that as ‘fund-raising’ for a terrorist organization.”

Jamal continues: “We know of a woman who was kidnapped and raped. Her rapist forced her to then cook him dinner. The dinner was deemed ‘material aid’ and her application was denied.”

Those granted a permit to be voluntarily resettled in the United States must go to the city designated by the government and they must accept the first job offered them. An emigrating elite man who had a chauffeur in Iraq may arrive in America and become a chauffeur. The stated goal for the United States for this year is to resettle 12,000 Iraqi refugees. They aren’t keeping up to meet this goal, but even if they were, 12,000 is a small number when faced with over two million in need.

“It’s as if we’re standing outside a large building,” reflects Cathy Breen, who works with Iraqi refugees through Voices for Creative Nonviolence. “We know they process visas inside, but they won’t help us understand their process or their standards. We try to figure out who’s working there, how they coordinate their work, what criteria they use. We pool our information. Everybody is trying to piece together how their system works. We see the results of their work. But we are not allowed inside the building.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) will chronicle his excursion through the Middle East almost daily for the next couple of weeks, exclusively for The Register-Guard and the readers of his blog.