Background Briefing


Jordan now hosts an estimated 800,000 Iraqi nationals, the vast majority of whom are refugees, though only a minute fraction have been so recognized.  The conferring of refugee status does not make a person a refugee; rather, such status, when granted, declares the person to fulfill the criteria of being a refugee, something which necessarily would occur prior to being formally recognized.  In the absence of formal recognition, a refugee or asylum seeker (a person seeking refugee recognition) is no less deserving of protection.

The Jordanian authorities choose to regard the Iraqis variously as “guests,” “temporary visitors,” or “illegal aliens.”  Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no refugee law or asylum procedures.  For the first three years of the war, Jordan remained generally tolerant of the large numbers of Iraqis crossing its border and staying in its territory, preferring to benignly ignore the population, essentially looking the other way and letting the Iraqis fend for themselves.

Both popular and governmental attitudes changed after November 2005 when three Iraqis set off bombs which killed 60 people in three prominent hotels in Amman.  Since that time, the authorities have made it more difficult for Iraqis to renew temporary residence permits and remain legally in the country.  They have stepped up immigration enforcement efforts both in the interior and at the border.

Ironically, Jordanian government attitudes hardened further in late 2006 and early 2007 in an apparent negative reaction to a spike of positive international awareness and interest in Iraqi refugees and the first expressions of interest by governments outside the region in helping Jordan care for the large and growing Iraqi refugee population.

The Jordanian authorities had a particularly negative reaction to a UNHCR policy shift announced on January 1, 2007, when UNHCR said that “in view of the objective situation of armed conflict and generalized violence in Iraq” and recognizing that because of “the large numbers involved, individual refugee status is not feasible,” UNHCR “considers these persons as refugees on a prima facie basis.”

According to recent refugee testimonials confirmed by other travelers, such as truck and taxi drivers, Jordan has all but stopped the entry of Iraqi nationals at its border crossing with Iraq and is turning away many—if not most—of the Iraqis attempting to arrive by plane.

Since November 2006 refugees and other travelers have been reporting that Jordanian officials have been turning away single Iraqi men and boys between the ages of 17 and 35 at the border.  Recent accounts, however, indicate that Jordan has been applying the bars to entry much more widely.  In some cases, it is turning Iraqis away at ports of entry for failure to produce the new G series passports, a more tamper-resistant document than previously issued, but which Iraqis can only obtain from the Ministry of Interior by paying large sums of money, putting up with long waits, and enduring political and religious scrutiny by the issuing authorities.  In other cases, border guards ask Iraqis about their religious identity and reject those who are or appear to be Shi`a.  In some cases, Iraqis who had legal residence in Jordan and valid travel documents but who returned to Iraq were subsequently prevented from reentering Jordan, resulting in separation from their families.

A Christian man from Baghdad who used to work for the Red Cross as a driver told Human Rights Watch that he fled to Jordan with his wife and four children in June 2006 after his son was injured by a car bomb and he received a threatening note saying, “You are an unbeliever.  Your wife is a whore.  We will pursue you to the last days of your life.”  Recently, however, his wife and youngest son returned to Baghdad because her father had just had a heart attack.  They subsequently tried to return to Jordan via the overland route on March 27, 2007, but despite having valid travel documents, Jordanian guards turned them away at the border.  “My wife told the border guards that she has three small children in Amman, but they told her ‘You might be a refugee,’ and turned her away.  I think they wouldn’t let her in because her other children were here in Jordan.”

That a border official would deny entry to a woman and child because he thought they were refugees is a perversion of the right to seek asylum and other fundamental human rights principles.  If government officials are intentionally separating families—as suggested by this and other accounts—this would violate additional fundamental rights of families and children.

After being rejected at the border and making her way back to Baghdad, the same woman tried to fly to Jordan with her son, but when she arrived at the airport in Amman, the immigration official refused her entry, saying that the computer showed that she had been rejected at the land border.  “We still have a valid temporary residence permit in Jordan and no fines,” her husband said.  At the time of the interview, however, the man only had two days left before his three-month permit would expire.

A 40-year-old Sunni woman whose husband was murdered and dismembered in front of her eyes before she was brutalized and gang-raped by eight men arrived from Baghdad by plane in July 2006 (She showed Human Rights Watch scars on her feet, knees, legs, back, stomach, head, and face).  She said that Jordanian immigration authorities admitted only two Iraqis from the plane and returned all the others to Iraq.  The woman said that the only reason they allowed her to enter was because she had a visa for Morocco in her passport and told them that she was transiting there. 

Others also report problems at the airport.  A well-to-do Iraqi in his 50s told Human Rights Watch about re-entering Amman after attending a conference in the United Kingdom:

Every two months, it seems the [Jordanian] government changes the rules.  Eight months ago, I went to England.  At the airport, I was questioned by Jordanian intelligence. They said, “You are an Iraqi.  Why are you coming back?” I told them my wife and daughter were here.  My only protection was that I was traveling with an American.  If I was alone, I’m sure they would have deported me to Iraq.  They wrote in my passport that I could only stay two weeks.  I am now here illegally.  This month the policy has changed again.  They give the few Iraqis whom they accept at the airport only a 72-hour transit visa that cannot be renewed.  If you arrive at the airport without proper documents, the Jordanian authorities take you into custody and send you to Iraq.

It used to be that you could simply renew your residency permit by going to Syria.  Now if you go to Syria, you cannot come back.  Even people going from Iraq to Syria can’t enter Jordan.    

Other recent travelers confirm the difficulty of entering Jordan by land or air, including not just entry controls but the dangerous journey itself.  A 77-year-old man from Najaf demonstrates why new Shi`a arrivals are so rare.  The grey-bearded man, wearing traditional clothing, does not profess to be a refugee.  He tried to enter Jordan overland in November 2006 for medical treatment, but was turned away at the border.  When he arrived at the border he said, “They wouldn’t let anyone in at all.  They didn’t ask for the G passport; they just turned us all back.  I said I came for medical treatment, but they turned me away.”

After being turned away at the border, the group proceeded back to Baghdad.  They were traveling in a convoy of two large sport utility vehicle “taxis” that are the only vehicles that drive passengers to Jordan (Jordan has not allowed private cars with Iraqi license plates to enter the country since January 2006). About 150 kilometers from the border, gunmen forced the two vehicles to stop and made the passengers get out.  The gunmen asked the passengers if they were Sunni or Shi`a, demanded to see their passports, and tested them by asking them to recite certain prayers.  “If they had seen my passport, I would have been killed,” the man said.  He told them that he was a Sunni and that he had lost his passport; they didn’t search him.  He said that except for himself and his elderly wife, the gunmen forced all the passengers, also Shi`a, to lie on the ground and shot and killed them.  “I’m an old man.  They might have respected that,” he said.  He begged the gunmen to spare the life of the driver so he could take them back to Baghdad.

On March 16, 2006, the elderly man flew to Amman alone.  “When we came by land, they wouldn’t accept us, so I came alone because we knew they wouldn’t accept us both.”  At the airport, he said that the Jordanian authorities sent back the other Iraqis on his plane.  After providing proof of his appointment for medical treatment and a guarantee from a Jordanian sponsor who was willing to pay the equivalent of US$2,000 for his treatment, they issued him a three-month residency permit.  He said that he would return to Iraq overland when his visa expires because he needs to rejoin his wife and he cannot afford another plane fare.  “I am afraid, but I must go back,” he said. 

A Christian professional from a predominantly Sunni Arab town (his profession and the name of the town are withheld to protect family members still there) was compelled to flee in late 2006 after militants kidnapped and murdered his father, a religious leader, and threatened his own life.  “I was threatened in 2003 and 2004 as a [profession withheld], but I stayed,” he said.  “But now, it is connected to my family.  Now it is not just about losing my own life.  We are not just afraid, but a specific event forced us to leave Iraq.”  Together with his female family members and carrying proper travel documents, he arrived at the airport in Amman in late 2006.  On the day of his arrival, Jordanian authorities rejected every Iraqi passenger from two airplanes, he said.  He subsequently managed to enter Jordan through a professional connection, but could not bring his family, and is now staying in Jordan illegally.  “I tried to bring my family in February, but they refused them at the airport.”  He has registered with UNHCR, but when he told them about his family, a UNHCR official told him that they were not able to help because his family was still inside Iraq.  He said:

I can’t go back to Iraq.  I am on a death list.  My family is under threat.  My stay in Amman is not protected.  They will return me back to Iraq whenever they want.  That is the danger.  I have entered Jordan many times before this happened.  But now, this is not just a trip.  I am under a real threat.  Returning to Iraq will mean my death.

Various sources told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian border officials are now specifically turning away Shi`a asylum seekers.  One man said that when his parents—one Sunni, the other Shi`a—arrived at the Jordanian border, they permitted his Sunni mother to enter, but refused his Shi`a father entry and put a red stamp (barring future entry) in his passport.  Not wanting to be separated, they returned to Baghdad together. “They called us from the border,” he said.  “They were crying.”

A Sunni refugee in Egypt, who Shi`a militants in Baghdad had persecuted, witnessed border guards barring Shi`a from entering Jordan when he crossed into Jordan in June 2006 on his way to Egypt.  He said:

It wasn’t easy to get into Jordan. We had troubles at the border.…They don’t let in Shi`a….They ask what religion you are.  If you say you are a Sunni, it is okay.  If you say you are a Shi`a, you are not admitted.  They let us in with a one-week residence permit, but only because my daughter was sick.

In addition to rejections at the border crossing and the airport, Iraqi refugees in Jordan report that police and immigration authorities conduct many more sweeps than in the past, arresting people in parks, work places, and neighborhoods where Iraqis are concentrated.  Arrests appear to be taking place in larger numbers and expulsions are increasingly swift. 

An Iraqi woman in Amman told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian police arrested three of her friends on April 7, 2007, at a factory where they were working illegally.  The police promptly took them to the border.  “Everything happens really quickly,” she said.  “People are afraid to walk downtown, even with a UNHCR document.  The police raids are not just in factories and work places, but they pick people up from the street.”

An Iraqi cleric said, “Government officials are now catching people.  Until a few months ago, only men who were working illegally were at risk.  It is painful for us now to see woman caught by the police.  It is a great shame from a Middle Eastern point of view.  In the Jabal Hussein neighborhood [where many Iraqis live], I recently saw the police catch a young man.  He shouted in the street, “I don’t want to be killed.”