Jordan’s invisible refugees suffer in silence

As the world’s attention remains focused on Syrian refugees, non-Syrian refugees in Jordan suffer in silence.

UNHCR has registered refugees from 45 nationalities who are now living in Jordan [Areej Abuqudairi/Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan – Having been a refugee almost all his life, Eritrean Idriss Salameh Idriss, says there is very little he or the world should mark on the occasion of World Refugee Day, which the world is marking today

“We are only refugees on paper,” said the 32-year-old as he gestured to his UN document verifying his refugee status.

Fear of prosecution in his home country Eritrea, which has one of the poorest records of human rights abuses worldwide, forced him to flee to Sudan as a young child.

Being a refugee is so bitter and I do not want my children to feel the same

by Idriss Salameh Idriss, Eritrean refugee

Having once again been pushed away by the worsening situation in Sudan into Jordan, Idriss is losing hope of being resettled in a place where he could have decent work and living conditions.

Now, like tens of thousands of refugees in Jordan, he is struggling to make ends meet in a country far from his family. He is sharing a two bedroom flat with ten other refugee men from Somalia and Sudan who also came in search of protection from ongoing wars and violence.

But as the world’s attention remains focused on Syrian refugees, non-Syrian refugees in Jordan feel forgotten as they suffer in silence.

Although Syrians make up 90 percent of refugees registered in Jordan with the United Nations Higher Commission (UNHCR), besides the two million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, UNHCR has registered refugees from 45 nationalities who are now living in Jordan.

The majority of them are Iraqis (28,236), and the rest vary from 2,643 Sudanese, 794 Somalis, and 45 Eritreans to just one refugee from Mali.

“Each refugee that is registered with us, each family has a different story. They have all suffered tremendously,” Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative to Jordan, told Al Jazeera.

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Although they are small in numbers, refugees of “other nationalities” live in dire conditions in Jordan.

Just three years ago, aid agencies used to call them “non-Iraqi” refugees, but as the Syrian crisis has worsened, Iraqis have also joined the list of “non-Syrian” refugees.  

The majority of Sudanese and Somali refugees live in the neighbourhood of Masarwa in the back of the second circle, which has been gradually abandoned by local residents due to its poor infrastructure.

Several families or crowded groups of single men and women share small flats with an average of one to two bedrooms.

Unlike homes of Syrian refugees, homes of “other refugees” do not have any blankets, food donations, or heaters. Their homes are barely operational with worn out furniture often collected after being dumped by locals, they say.

While food items and donations for Syrian refugees are sold publicly in urban Jordan, logos of aid agencies are no where to be found – except on their UN documents.

Some of them survive by working, occasionally finding undercover work as cleaners, gardeners, labourers, and in cafes. They remain at risk of deportation if they are caught.

Just two months ago, Idriss was jailed after he was caught working at a shisha cafe in West Amman.

“It felt like turning me in to the police. I knew I was breaking the country’s law but it was only to feed myself,” he said rolling his fingers over his UNHCR’s documents to point out the section where it states that it is illegal for him to work.

When we cannot work, sometimes we have to ask local restaurants to donate some food, and at times we search in garbage bins for dried bread.

by - Jakub Hassan, Sudanese refugee

Suzan Muhareb, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Organisation (AARD), says work permits are in a high demand for refugees working in Jordan, especially to those who receive limited assistance.

“A large portion of them are living in debt for landlords, shopkeepers, and friends,” she told Al Jazeera.

“They do not receive enough assistance. They cannot work, but they need to eat,” she said.

Although it is illegal for all refugees to work in Jordan, the Jordanian authorities have turned a blind eye on Syrian refugees who have openly taken on jobs in Jordan’s informal sector. But the government remains very strict with Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese refugees.

Police cars are always driving across the Masarwa neighbourhood during the day checking IDs of residents and raiding homes at night looking for illegal migrants working.

“When we cannot work, sometimes we have to ask local restaurants to donate some food, and at times we search in garbage bins for dried bread,” said Jakub Hassan, who fled Darfur two years ago along with his wife and mother.

He learned some Arabic from mixing with Arab Sudanese, but his wife and mother still “feel like aliens” as they cannot communicate with anyone – including shopkeepers.

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Although once registered with UNHCR, refugees should have access to education and health in Jordan. Language and the expense of commuting and purchasing clothes and school items still serves as a barrier for many.

UNHCR says all refugees should be entitled to the same level of assistance as everyone else and intend to reach out to as many as they can.

But amid the increasing numbers of Syrian refugees and limited funding, UNHCR is only able to help the most vulnerable.

“While many refugees believe they are the most vulnerable, when you are dealing with the other 60,000 thousands [Syrians], and the limited resources we have to really focus on those in desperate situations,” said Harper of UNHCR. 

“But obviously we would like to do more and reach more,” he added. UNHCR has only received 30 percent of its funding for Syrian refugees while  hundreds continue to cross into Jordan every week.

The organisation needs funding to set up electricity in its recently inaugurated camp in Azraq in order to continue to deal with the challenges of the ever chaotic Zaatari camp.

Some donors allocate budgets for certain groups, according to Harper.

“We would like it if funding came in for all refugees instead of certain groups so we could help all according to their level of vulnerability,” Harper said.

Although drying out, funding for Iraqi refugees continues, though some organisations like CARE International and the International Relief and Development have kept certain programmes for Iraqi refugees.

Iraqis live in impoverished conditions as well in the poorest neighbourhoods of East Amman and Zarqa.

But it all means very little to refugees like Idriss and Jakub who live in harsh conditions. They also fled violence, lost family members and loved ones, and left their home countries that are still not safe to return to.

Idriss shows a pile of documents that he sent to western embassies and leading aid agencies in Jordan – via mail, fax, email, and in person- trying to draw support and attention to his miserable condition.

“All we want is to live in dignity and meet basic needs of life,” Idriss said.

Until a durable solution is found for their situation, many refugees put their life’s dreams on hold. Idriss has postponed his dream of having a family until the day he could financially support them.

“Being a refugee is so bitter and I do not want my children to feel the same.” 

Source: Al Jazeera