Jordan has become the West’s warehouse for Iraqi refugees

This is as far as you go: refugees arrive in Jordan. EPA/STR

Swamped as we are with media outrage and political rhetoric about asylum seekers “invading” Europe, we tend to forget that the vast majority of displaced people find refuge in countries far beyond EU borders.

The numbers are huge, and the burden upon typically impoverished nations can be immense – far beyond any scenario that impassioned advocates of enhanced “border control” in the UK have so far conjured up.

The reason that most of the world’s refugees reside in neighbouring countries is, on the face of it, obvious. It makes intuitive sense, surely, that people would flee to the nearest “safe” country. This is deceptive; neighbouring nations are often unable to offer real security, and their socio-economic conditions prevent proper integration. Refugees therefore often see nearby countries of first asylum as just stepping-stones to other destinations.

Whether or not they are able to move on depends upon more distant nations offering them long-term refuge. In many cases, the congregation of a large number of refugees in a particular state is due less to convenience than it is to other countries’ refusal to share the burden.

So it goes with the immense and growing presence of refugees in Jordan.

Deluge and strain

The number of displaced people in Jordan (not including the Palestinians) places the country high in the ranking of refugee-hosting nations – and when its refugee population is weighed up in proportion to the size of its citizenry, it most probably tops that list.

The impact of this influx is inevitably considerable. Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with much of its territory consisting of barely habitable desert. Its capacity to provide long-term refuge to a huge number of people also depends greatly on the stability of its politics – which already revolve around a fragile balance between competing tribal and other factions, the upsetting of which could split the country asunder.

Even before 2003, Jordan was a principal destination for Iraqis seeking refuge. But as a result of the sectarian violence that followed the US-led invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein, the numbers grew steadily. As of March 2013, UNHCR suggested that around 30,000 Iraqis were registered in Jordan; thousands more have chosen not to register, managing their situation without state or international assistance.

Given the upsurge of violence associated with Islamic State’s advances as well as continued sectarian killing in places such as Baghdad, the numbers arriving monthly are rising fast: informal estimates suggest that more than 9,000 have registered with UNHCR since the start of 2014. Meanwhile, the support available to Iraqis remains scant, only a tiny fraction of what’s being made available to assist the Syrians. And as most Western nations close their resettlement programmes for Iraqis, the odds of moving on grow ever longer.

With access to the formal labour market in Jordan denied, their savings spent, and financial support greatly reduced, thousands of Iraqis face an increasingly desperate challenge to survive. Alongside cash-strapped NGOs, local charitable organisations do what they can to deal with overwhelming need. Even if the recent rise in new arrivals should trigger renewed donations from the West, this will likely be limited to emergency aid for new arrivals; existing refugees will not benefit from this largesse.

Responsibility for the welfare of this long-term displaced population is a fraught issue. The Jordanian authorities have delegated the task of registering and assisting the Iraqis to UNHCR; however, to fulfil that function adequately, the UN refugee agency needs substantial and sustained finance.

For its part, the Jordanian state has made some basic services available, principally schooling and primary healthcare. This policy also comes at a heavy price: foreign funding to cover the cost of school education was cut in 2013, and Jordan’s ability to foot the bill is in serious doubt.

Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has largely ignored the fate of its citizens fleeing from violence that it was unable to prevent – while the countries behind the fall of Saddam (and therefore implicated in the ensuing displacement) have accepted very different levels of responsibility.

Rotten record

In 2006, the late US Senator Edward Kennedy publicly argued that “America bears heavy responsibility for [Iraqi refugees’] plight” – and whether because of a lingering sense of that responsibility or not, the US has continued to provide some funds for the Iraqis in Jordan and to accept a limited number each year for resettlement.

In contrast, the UK has no programme of resettlement for Iraqis; for several years now, it has provided little support to those displaced beyond the nation’s borders. In recent weeks, the British government has started assisting (mostly Christian) Iraqis fleeing IS forces within Iraq – but their fellow citizens in Jordan have long since fallen off the radar, left to fend for themselves as “guests” in a country struggling to stay afloat.

Unless Jordan’s refugee population grows restive, or the political stability of the country is otherwise seriously threatened, there is little chance that this longstanding neglect will ever be addressed.

As the UK and its allies engage in fresh military activity in Iraq, they are presumably relying on Jordan to maintain its function as a warehouse for terrorised civilians fleeing that country, helping to keep them away from the shores of Western nations. But Jordan’s capacity to continue in that role is not infinite.