(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Uncertainty for Iraqi immigrants

Rita fled to Jordan with her husband and three children in early February. "We came mainly for economic reasons, but also because we were so frightened of the threat of war," she said.

In order to get out of Iraq, her family had to pay a series of bribes - 40,000 Iraqi dinars (US $125) for passports, 175,000 dinars to obtain an exit permit, and $325 to allow her husband to cut short his military service after only two months. The journey from Baghdad to Amman cost an additional $140.

For Rita, a housewife, and her husband, who worked in a Baghdad hotel, it wasn't easy to find the money. "We came here with no plans - we just came here. We sold our stuff without planning anything, not even what we would eat," she said.

Rita now shares a two-room flat with 10 other people, scraping enough money together from her cleaning job to pay the rent. "The money that we're earning here is nearly enough to keep us going," she said. "I don't like it here, but it's a must for us for the time being."

The Jordanian government estimates that before the war there were about 305,000 Iraqis living in the country, of whom about 6,000 went home before hostilities broke out. Unofficial estimates say the number of Iraqis in Jordan may be much higher.

Most come as economic migrants, a tiny number as asylum seekers (currently about 5,000), while others come for medical treatment or to apply for visas to other countries in the absence of embassies in Baghdad.

Jordan was often seen as a transit country for hopefuls who, either legally or illegally, wanted to reach the US, Canada or Europe, said Jamal Hattar, General Director of Caritas Jordan, which has been assisting the Iraqi community since 1997. Traffickers charged migrants between US $3,000 and US $4,000, he added.

Those who arrive - who come from all walks of life and social backgrounds - tend to come in family groups or as single men. Women under 45, by contrast, are prohibited by law to leave the country without being accompanied by a husband, father, brother or son aged at least 18. As a result, fewer women than men manage to leave, and when they do, they are forced to pay higher bribes for documentation. Others resort to paying someone to accompany them across the border.

"Even in my passport I had a stamp to say I was being accompanied by my husband," said Rita, "and that was stamped again at the Iraqi border."

When they arrive, they get a three-month permit to stay in Jordan, but the vast majority stay on illegally with a mounting debt to the Jordanian authorities. For every day they stayed beyond the three months, they had to pay a fine of 1.5 Jordanian dinars ($2.10), which in some cases added up to thousands of dinars, said Hattar. Without paying the debt they were not allowed to leave again, he said, except in some cases he had heard of where they signed a form to guarantee they would not return for five years.

Meanwhile, many families in Iraq are dependent on the remittances sent from abroad, forcing many Iraqis to remain illegally, and in difficult circumstances.

Bushra, a former secondary school teacher who came to Jordan with her son on 19 March said she was "forced" to marry a Jordanian to be allowed to stay. "When we got married we had a deal - it was a marriage on paper only," she said.

The 100 Jordanian dinars she earns per month for working seven days a week as a hairdresser pays for her rent, leaving her dependent on a friend for food and expenses. "We help each other out," she said "but it's gone from bad to worse".

"I thought I'd be the last to leave Baghdad but because of the sharp fall in Iraqi dinars I earned nothing," she said. "But now it is catastrophic."

Others, like Haydar, who works as a barber for 100 Jordanian dinars per month, say business is much better in Amman than Baghdad. "I came mainly for economic reasons, secondly for psychological reasons. I feel more secure here, more freedom, free to move and work," Haydar told IRIN.

While Iraqis provide a welcome source of cheap labour for the Jordanian market, said Hattar, the threat of deportation also hung over them. "It's a way of keeping people aware of the law," he said.

Rita told IRIN she lived in constant fear of being detained and then deported. "Sometimes the vehicles go around Amman, going up to foreigners. If they have no work permit or visa they grab them and take them to the borders," she said. "We are very afraid because there's no stability."

Many illegal Iraqis, determined to keep a low profile, are also reluctant to have recourse to the limited services available to them. But somehow they scrape by. The black market provides them with jobs in Jordan, or husbands travel abroad to seek their fortunes, hoping that the family will soon be able to follow.

Broken families are common, with some spread out over several continents. Sometimes, the husbands continued to support their families, and sometimes they were never heard from again, said Hattar.

Those left behind in Jordan continue to hope and pray for a brighter future. "If I would have the chance to go to my brother in Australia or my sister in Sweden, I wouldn't mind," said Rita.

Others are determined to go home. Ammar, a former Arabic language teacher who now works in a café in Amman, said, "God willing, I would love to go back by the end of this year."

Haydar said he would return to Iraq when he considered it to be stable. "If I see more political and security stability, that will lead to psychological security. I hope Iraq will return to what it used to be, a torch for culture and literature, the very first nation for the sciences," he said. "The whole world knows what Iraq has been, and what it can be again."

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