UN appeals for £30m in emergency aid as Iraqi refugee crisis escalates. Syria and Jordan struggle to cope as thousands enter…
The first picture shows a man in a shirt and trousers hunched behind the wheel of a family saloon, his face bloodied, grimacing, and his clothes covered with blood stains.
The next shows the exterior of the car he was driving, its body and windscreen pockmarked by machine gun fire, while another shows women weeping at his funeral.
“He had just finished work in Baghdad, and was coming home,” his 29-year-old wife Hanya recounts, sitting in a single room apartment in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
She puts the pictures back into her handbag as her four-year-old daughter appears and asks what we are looking at.
“The [insurgents] called me afterwards and said they would kill us both if we stayed, so we left.”
Hanya and her daughter were granted short-term access to the Green Zone in Baghdad in the following weeks, thanks to her oil-contractor husband’s Canadian nationality. They left for Germany after they were granted a six-month visa there.
It seemed to promised them safety and opportunity, but when the visa expired Hanya and her daughter were deported back to Iraq where they immediately made a bee-line to the border, and were granted temporary residency in Jordan.
The number of refugees, like Hanya and her daughter, fleeing escalating violence and persecution is increasing far beyond the limits that Iraq’s neighbours, like Jordan and Syria are able to cope with.
The UNHCR says the situation is ‘critical’ and has appealed for $60m – double its budget for Iraqi refugees in 2006, and the second largest amount it has requested since 2003 – to help provide emergency aid to those who have fled the country.
Tellingly, the agency’s new annual report for the region shows the UK donated just US$266,000 towards UNHCR efforts for Iraq in 2006, ranking eighth behind other donors including Korea, Norway and Ireland.
Aggression from incumbents and foreign troops towards citizens is estimated to be causing between 40,000 to 50,000 to become internally displaced in Iraq every month.
Most end up in neighbouring Jordan and Syria where they try and mostly fail to obtain visas for residency in Europe or the US.
Rena Feto, 36, arrived in Jordan three years ago on a six-month visa. She is fortunate to work for a company that is sympathetic to her position, and employs her off the books.
She is paid better than many others she knows in the city, but the two Jordanian dollars (£1.40) the government fines her for each day she remains in Jordan illegally means she is living in a kind of human negative equity, and on borrowed time.
Almost all of the money she earns from her work goes on rent and visas.
Rena is currently awaiting news on her sixth Australian visa application, with each previous failed attempt costing her US$200. US visa applications are $100 each.
In either case the fees are non refundable, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s a very unhappy situation for us,” she says, “and I’m scared about my children growing up with this going on around them. Of course, we’re all fearful of being caught and deported too.”
Official figures put the number of Iraqi refugees in Jordan at 700,000, the largest concentration anywhere except Syria. But the true figure is more likely to be around the one million mark, a phenomenal number for a small and resource-poor country with a population of just 5.6 million.
London-based World Emergency Relief (WER), which has been sending shipments of emergency aid to local refugee co-ordinators in Amman, says some Iraqi families it has visited there are experiencing ‘extreme poverty’.
Alex Haxton, director of operations at WER, says the crisis is hidden from view because the refugees have blended into their surroundings, rather than grouping into camps.
“A lot of them are living without enough food in conditions of abject poverty with little hope for the future. Many are fragmented families whose fathers, brothers and husbands have been refused entry at the border because the Jordanians are suspicious of them”.
Al-Qaeda suicide bombers killed 60 people in three hotels in Amman in November 2005, with the Jordanian authorities responding, in part, by denying entry to Iraqi men aged between 18 and 35. The upper age limit was recently raised to include men up to 40.
Alex says refugees who reached Amman months ago now live in fear of deportation because they have outstayed their welcome.
“It’s difficult to sleep at night knowing there could be a knock any minute by officials who would drive us to the border and hand us to the guards,” says Hassan, a 40-year-old Iraqi father of two.
A former painter in Baghdad, he now works illegally as a cleaner in an Amman hospital, along with his wife, earning JD$80 a month. The minimum wage in Amman is JD$110 and the monthly rent for their two room apartment is JD$100.
“We know they take advantage of us because of our situation,” he says, “but we’re not in a position to argue about money, or anything else.”
Hassan maintains his family’s home in Baghdad was destroyed by Shia neighbours following the 2003 invasion because they are Christians.
“That would never have happened before. It wasn’t an issue,” he says.
“Life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein would be heaven compared to this,” he says, waving a hand around his cramped and dingy apartment room.
“If we could go back to that today, we would.”