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‘Like a ship about to sink’: Refugees in Jordan voice pandemic despair

‘The pandemic is going to have a long-term impact on refugee families. They will have challenges for months to come.’

A man wearing a protective face mask walks next to closed shops in the capital of Jordan as the country goes into COVID-19 lockdown, 18 March 2020. The majority of Jordan's nearly one million refugees live in cities like Amman, rather than in camps. (Muhammad Hamed/REUTERS)

When Jordan announced one of the world’s strictest pandemic-related lockdowns on 20 March, the kingdom gave just a few hours notice that 10 million people would be restricted to their homes, banned even from making trips to buy food. Fears grew quickly for the country’s close to one million refugees.

How would they be able to stockpile supplies when 85 percent live under the poverty line and only two percent have savings?

Concern proved well-founded. Aid groups struggled to reach people in need, and many who relied on the informal economy for work were left without income and unable to provide for their families. By early April, nearly one third of the refugees in one survey said they hadn’t had enough food to eat in the past week.

In recent days, the government has gradually allowed more people to move around, but the relaxed conditions don’t appear to have brought significant relief to most of the kingdom’s refugees. Rolling out 18,000 one-time emergency payments, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said earlier this week that more than 90 percent of refugees have less than 50 Jordanian dinar ($70) left, and limited access to aid.

“We have seen over a third of refugee daily workers lose their jobs completely and [they] are struggling to put food on the table,” Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR’s representative in Jordan, said in an 11 May statement announcing the measures. The agency said it had received 300,000 calls to its hotline since COVID-19 hit the country in early March, with most people seeking cash assistance.

People like Syrian refugee Mariam, her husband, and five young children are among those struggling to get by. In phone conversations interrupted by her children’s chatter, she told The New Humanitarian about the challenges her family has faced, before and after the pandemic.

Her home in Aleppo was destroyed in Syria’s war, and the precarious life her family struggled to rebuild in Jordan since 2014 was shattered when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2018. Last November, a stroke left him partially paralysed. This meant he was unable to work in his usual tailoring position or do the other odd jobs he had done to keep the family afloat. Just like that, they were left completely dependent on aid.

Then came the virus.

The family borrowed over $500 from friends to pay medical bills, utilities, and buy food, said Mariam, who asked that her real name not be used because she was concerned about her privacy. The family receives $225 in cash every month from UNHCR, but it’s not enough to cover expenses, and they owe their landlord $280 for two months’ back rent.

Many NGOs that work with refugees outside camps, including Caritas – the Catholic relief agency that supplied Mariam’s husband with some of the medications he takes – were forced to shutter operations temporarily during lockdown. Caritas is now distributing medication to over 1,600 refugee patients via the delivery service UPS, but her husband has not yet been reached.

“An American woman used to help me, but she went back to America because of the crisis,” Mariam said over the phone from her small apartment in a crowded neighbourhood on the highest of Amman’s many hills. “The doctor told my husband to eat a lot of fish because it’s good for his neurological system, but we can’t afford it.”

Jordanians come first

Jordan, which had 582 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine deaths as of 14 May, hosts the second highest number of refugees per capita in the world. That includes more than 745,000 registered with UNHCR from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries, plus an estimated two million Palestinians.

Eight in 10 refugees live in urban areas rather than in the country’s three official camps for Syrians, and many survived on low-paid work in the informal sector before the pandemic struck. The government prevents most refugees from working legally in order to protect Jordanian jobs in a country where unemployment reached almost 20 percent last year; with Syrians allowed to apply for permits to work in only a few industries in designated economic zones.

Although Jordan has given refugees access to basic healthcare and education, the cash-strapped kingdom’s hospitality is being tested now that resources are stretched to the limit.

On 20 April, Minister of Industry and Trade Tareq Hammouri said businesses being allowed to reopen should give priority to Jordanian employees. Last week, he announced the lifting of economic restrictions as long as the percentage of Jordanian workers is not less than 75 percent.

Ashraf Khreis, a spokesperson for Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development, told TNH that while NGOs have to register with his ministry, it only deals with issues concerning Jordanians and that refugees are UNHCR’s responsibility.

The Jordanian government has announced a fund to assist workers who lost income because of COVID-19, but it targets mostly Jordanian workers, and nearly all refugees are ineligible for government aid.

Excluded from the government’s social protection programmes, most refugees can only turn to a severely underfunded aid system. After so many years of crisis, international funding has been dwindling in Jordan, and most donors focus on economic empowerment and development instead of emergency cash for refugees – which is what many people need to buy food and other necessities right now.

“Funding for cash assistance was barely enough before the pandemic, and now the need is much bigger,” said Qais Tarawneh, director of protection at the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD), which works with refugees. “Some of the big donors have been flexible when it comes to channelling the funds and agreeing on budget revisions to respond to the pandemic,” he added. Others, he said, were not as willing to accommodate new and changing needs.

One meal a day

A recent survey by the International Labour Organisation found that among workers already considered vulnerable – like daily or seasonal workers, or people with no social security or who are impoverished – refugees have so far been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Almost half of respondents who were previously employed were out of work, and even more said they anticipated losing their jobs in the coming months.

Kamal Hassan, who fled Sudan in 2014, certainly falls into the “vulnerable” category. Until the lockdown began, he worked in construction in Amman, earning $494 a month. Despite the lifting of economic restrictions, he hasn’t been able to go back to work.

With no income for two months, he’s not sure how he’s going to survive.

“I feel like a ship about to sink,” he said. “I was unable to pay the rent, and the landlord threatened to kick me out.”

Others report similar conditions.

“There is no one to support me,” said Othman Abbas, a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Chad, speaking by phone from a suburb of Amman. He arrived in Jordan a year ago and used to earn $324 a month cleaning a small restaurant. “With the lockdown, the only food I get is given to me by neighbours, and sometimes I have to be satisfied with only one meal a day.”

Since the easing of lockdown, Abbas has gone back to his job, but is receiving less than half of his usual salary due to reduced working hours.

“With the lockdown, the only food I get is given to me by neighbours, and sometimes I have to be satisfied with only one meal a day.”

Abbad and Hassan weren’t considered vulnerable enough to qualify for UNHCR’s cash assistance when they arrived in Jordan (only about 30,000 families do).

Further complicating the delivery of humanitarian services in Jordan amid the pandemic is the fact that during the lockdown not all NGOs received permits to move freely because their staff aren’t considered essential workers. This is changing, as people are now allowed out between 8am and 7pm, with a complete lockdown enforced only on Fridays. Cars have returned to the streets under a system that allows alternate-day access between even- and odd-numbered license plates, and public transit has resumed with passenger limits.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior couldn’t be reached for comment about the permit system.

Some grassroots organisations have found ways to continue assistance without permits. Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a non-profit with two community centres serving marginalised refugees in Amman, started arranging credits for refugee families at local markets.

“In the beginning [of the lockdown], no one else was able to help, and our community focus really paid off,” said Samer Kurdi, head of CRP’s emergency assistance programme. By partnering with local markets, the small organisation managed to provide food aid to more than 700 refugee families. Kurdi said that with the government gradually easing restrictions, relief efforts have become more accessible.

But needs remain high.

UNHCR estimates that 50,000 families urgently require cash assistance, said spokesperson Lilly Carlisle. “The pandemic is going to have a long-term impact on refugee families,” Carlisle said. “They will have challenges for months to come.”

As for Mariam, she feels there is little she can do but wait, and hope assistance eventually reaches her again. The family has applied for resettlement abroad, but very few refugees who apply for the UNHCR-led programme actually get to start over in a new country in the best of times, and coronavirus has put the entire enterprise on hold.

“Regardless of any requests of ours,” Mariam said, “[international organisations] are the ones with the final say.”

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