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Rights group calls for more protection for Iraqi refugees

[Jordan] Iraqi children lacking residency permits attend makeshift schools to get some form of education. [Date picture taken: 10/03/2006]
Iraqi children lacking residency permits attend makeshift schools to get some form of education. (Maria Font de Matas/IRIN)

A leading international human rights group on Tuesday called on Jordan to provide a Temporary Protection Regime (TPR) for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees living in its territory.

“After fleeing violence and persecution in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis living in Jordan face a daily threat of arrest, fines and deportation because the Jordanian government treats them as illegal immigrants rather than refugees,” reads a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled ‘The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan’.

The report was laucnched on the eve of a meeting between Jordan’s King Abdullah and US President George Bush scheduled for Wednesday in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

Aware of the financial constraints on a country such as Jordan to cope with the massive influx of Iraqis, HRW called also on the US, as well as the rest of the international community, to assist the kingdom.

“President Bush should call on King Abdullah to protect Iraqi refugees, and the US should offer aid to the countries struggling to cope with the influx from Iraq,” Bill Frelick, HRW refugee policy director and author of the report, said in a press conference held in Amman.

According to government figures, there are some 400,000 Iraqis in Jordan, although other estimates put the figure at one million. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says there are 800 recognised Iraqi refugees living in Jordan but their refugee status does not give them the right to residence, employment or education.

Another 18,000 Iraqis are registered with UNHCR as asylum seekers.

Nasser Judeh, spokesperson for the Jordanian government, said that the HRW report was “baseless, inaccurate and unrealistic”.

He also said that thousands of Iraqis in the country should not be considered refugees. “The UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] is the only authorised body to classify who is a refugee,” Judeh said.

According to the UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is “a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution”.

‘De facto’ refugees

“The overwhelming majority of the Iraqis living in Jordan are ‘de facto’ refugees,” Frelick said. By ‘de facto’ he meant that most of the Iraqis would qualify for refugee status if they had the opportunity of an individual screening.

Sources from UNHCR said the UN agency does not have enough staff to proceed with individual screenings due to the huge quantity of applications.

Given this situation, HRW and UNHCR have urged Jordan to provide Iraqis with temporary protection, which would prevent them from being sent back to their war-torn country.

The HRW report said the refugees fear they may be deported if discovered, so they often do not send their children to school and have limited access to health care.

The report said that the government issued a decree a few weeks before the start of the new school year in September barring Iraqi refugee children whose parents do not have a residency permit from attending government schools.

Local and international NGOs said the decree was a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and asked the authorities to revoke it.

According to UNHCR estimates, some 160,000 Iraqi children in Jordan are between the ages of five and 17. Tens of thousands are likely to be affected by the decree.

“The government should honour and enforce the right of all children residing in Jordan, regardless of immigration status, to free and compulsory primary education,” said Frelick.

Makeshift classes

Six-year-old Leila is one of the thousands of Iraqi children banned from going to public schools. Since September, Leila has been attending makeshift classes only three times a week because her parents have been living in Jordan illegally without a residency permit and cannot afford to pay private school fees.

Leila attends non-formal education classes at the National Patriarchal College in As Rafieh, east of Amman. This means that at the end of the school year she will not get an official diploma but only a certificate of attendance from Caritas, the Rome-based Catholic charitable organisation running the centre.

“I like coming here, it is better than spending long boring days at home,” said Leila, who shares a classroom with another 60 Iraqi children of mixed ages and religions.

“Neither me nor my husband can work because we are illegal. We live with the constant fear of being discovered by the police and deported [back] to Iraq,” Leila’s mother, who did not want to give her name, said.

Along with her husband and other Iraqi parents, Leila’s mother decided also to volunteer as an English teacher in the makeshift school.

According to official figures, last year some 60,000 Iraqi children, including those with residency permits, attended Jordanian schools. This caused some schools to be overcrowded in some areas of Amman, officials from the Ministry of Education said.

The same sources also said that the new edict on the admission of Iraqi children to public schools was necessitated by financial constraints.

“This year we were allocated US $476 million, but running the ministry alone costs US $1.4 million a day,” Mohammed Al-Akur, Managing Director of Public Education and Student Activities, said.

Jordan was among the first countries to open its borders to Iraqi refugees fleeing from the war. However, having absorbed some 600,000 Iraqis in the 1990s after the Gulf War, the Jordanian government has said Iraqi refugees would not be given permanent residency.

The country is also home to at least 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, according to the UN’s Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA). Unofficial estimates are as high as 3.5 million.

“Jordan has a long history of welcoming refugees, it should not stop now. The safety of hundreds of thousands of people hangs in the balance”, Frelick said

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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