Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: News

Non-Syrian refugees refused assistance in Jordan

Refugees from Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia among those unable to access help

Hanna Davis
24 April 2023, 12.00pm

Amman, Jordan


Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto/Getty Images. All rights reserved

In a one-room apartment in Jordan’s capital, Amman, Ali sits next to his mother-in-law. She’s doing her best to lull the cries of his one-year-old child, who has been sick for the last few months.

Ali and his family are from Darfur, West Sudan. Three years ago they boarded a flight to Jordan to escape the on-going civil war there. But instead of receiving protection, Ali has been forced to live as an undocumented resident, unable to get help from most of the humanitarian organisations operating in the kingdom.

There are an estimated 5,500 asylum seekers like Ali. They are effectively stranded in Jordan, the result of a 2019 government decision to prevent all those entering the country for the purpose of medical treatment, study, tourism, or work from being recognised as refugees. The decision has primarily affected those who must fly to Jordan, and therefore must be issued a visa prior to departure.

Notably, these include those fleeing the wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan. None of these conflicts has ended, and so this problem is likely to continue to grow. New fighting in Darfur especially, which has seen over 400 people killed and thousands injured since April 15 as rival military factions battle for control, is likely to propel more refugees into the same trap as Ali in the coming months.

Jordan is now the second highest refugee hosting country per capita in the world. The majority originate from Jordan’s neighbours; over two million Palestinians, around 660,000 Syrians, and around 60,000 Iraqis are registered with the UN’s agency for refugees (UNHCR). However, it is also home to small groups of refugees from further away. Their stories often go unnoticed, and their reception has been far less welcoming.

Refused status, refused help

Ali, 40, arrived on a medical visa. Unable to register with UNHCR or acquire a work permit, he said that he and his family scrape by on small jobs he picks up and handouts from a nearby church. “There are days we only have one meal per day,” he said.

Medical care for his sick child is out of the question. Without insurance or financial support, the prohibitive cost of healthcare limits them to over the counter painkillers and traditional medicines. “I don’t know what to do,” Ali said. “I could possibly find jobs further away, but it’s risky.” If Ali is caught without the right paperwork he could be immediately deported under Jordanian law. But if Ali returns to Sudan, he is convinced he will be detained and abused.

“If I go back to Sudan, they’ll take me,” he said. “I’m terrified.”

Maryam, 17, faces a similar situation. She fled Yemen last year with her two brothers on a medical visa for anaemia, allergies, and the loss of vision in one eye. But like Ali, she was hoping to find refuge in the country.

Her brothers, 8 and 12, were allowed to accompany her for the eight-month period allotted for her treatment. Those months are over, and now Maryam and her brothers are illegal residents in Jordan. They said they fear going back to Yemen, where a protracted war has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Our situation is very hard.

“[In Yemen] I was scared,” Maryam said. “I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t go anywhere.” Girls her age are often forced into marriage said Saeedeh, Maryam’s aunt. Saeedeh fled Yemen with her son in 2016 and is now caring for Maryam and her brothers.

Jordan’s Interior Minister, Mazen Faraya, said that the government views registration with UNHCR after being cleared to enter on medical grounds as “exploiting” the visa. He said the “additional burdens” that this places on Jordan were what drove the 2019 decision.

Nevertheless, this has blocked access to much-needed humanitarian services for thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived since 2019. It has also prevented them from working legally or attending school.

Saeedeh, having arrived prior to the decision, is registered with UNHCR and receives around 110 Jordanian dinars (£125) a month in support. She says it’s not enough to support all the children who are now in her house.

And, despite having overstayed a medical visa in order to avoid the war in Yemen, the medical issues that justified that visa remain real. Maryam and her brothers are unable to get healthcare assistance, so they must pay 50 dinars (£57) per month for Maryam’s allergy and blood medication, Saeedeh said. Her eye operation, although needed, remains a dream.

“There is no way I could even take them to the hospital,” Saeedeh said. “Our situation is very hard, especially with Maryam and her brothers.” Saeedeh said that if just one of the three children were able to register with UNHCR, it would relieve some of the financial pressures they face.

Non-Syrians at ‘very, very clear disadvantage’

Jordan’s legislation and national funding mechanisms for refugees are currently focussed on Syrians. Under the 2016 Jordan Compact, Jordan committed to incorporating Syrian refugees into their national programmes, such as education and healthcare, in return for billions of dollars in aid and preferential trade agreements. The compact also permitted Syrian refugees to work legally (in some sectors) and still receive assistance, a privilege granted to no other refugees in Jordan.

“Non-Syrians are at a very, very clear disadvantage,” said Jordan’s UNHCR representative, Dominik Bartsch, “in terms of access to facilities that are granted to Syrians, and in terms of services run by our partners that non-Syrians are unable to access.”

“It is a challenge for UNHCR to fulfil its mandate when persons in need do not have the ability to access registration,” Bartsch said.

I am scared of war and death in Sudan, and in Jordan I am scared I cannot provide food for my family.

The Jordan Response Plan for Syrian refugees brings in millions of dollars of targeted funding each year from international donors. Bartsch noted that UNHCR has pushed for the JRP to encompass all refugee groups, but so far that has not happened.

Asked why, Faraya, the interior minister, said: “Jordan cannot continue to receive refugees from various countries because of its negative consequences that may affect the ability of governments to provide for the needs of Jordanian citizens and carry out their duties and tasks.”

“Jordan bears on behalf of the international community what many countries cannot bear,” Faraya added.

The Jordanian authorities have not shied away from using deportation as a tool to lessen that burden. Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its subsequent 1967 protocol, which commits signatories to not return refugees to countries where they may face persecution or life-threatening circumstances. In 2015, Jordan deported hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers; in 2017 hundreds of registered Syrian refugees; and in 2021 authorities forcibly deported at least six Yemenis, among others.

An uncertain future

Maryam and her brothers fear what the coming months might bring, but for the moment they are doing their best to negotiate the limbo. After having been blocked from attending school for months, Maryam said they’ve found a generous school administrator that will let them attend despite their lack of identification. Maryam is happy that she will get to study again, but said she’s terrified she will be caught at the school and forced to return to Yemen.

Ali, meanwhile, will remain at home as much as possible, fearful of getting caught if he ventures too far afield. “I am scared of war and death in Sudan, and in Jordan I am scared I cannot provide food and medicine for my family. Both situations are bad,” Ali said. “I hope to find refuge in another country [someday], where it is safe.”

The names of all refugees have been changed for their protection.

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