Published in Jordan Times
The first day of school is a special day in the lives of children, but yesterday tens of thousands of kids in Jordan spent it at home. They are foreigners — mostly Iraqis — whom the government has not allowed to enrol because they lack residence permits.
At least 500,000 Iraqis live in Jordan, most having fled the turmoil in their country. Although the government has generally been tolerant towards Iraqis, the price of this tolerance has been to ignore their presence. This means not acknowledging that most Iraqis are refugees who need at least temporary protection.
Some 60,000 Iraqi children attended Jordanian schools last year, according to officials, who said they crowded classrooms and strained resources. The large numbers of Iraqis in Jordan, including children, undoubtedly put great strains on schools, health clinics and other social services that struggle to meet the needs of Jordanian citizens.
The government’s response, however, should not be to sweep the Iraqis under the rug and pretend they don’t exist, but rather to acknowledge their presence and ask for international support so that Jordan can respond in a spirit of hospitality and generosity.
Last year, the government first announced that foreign children without residence permits could not attend public schools, then reversed its policy at the last minute. In the ensuing confusion, many Iraqi parents did not enrol their children. Because of their parents’ ongoing fear and uncertainty, many Iraqi children have now missed a year of school.
“The building where I live is full of Iraqi people,” an Iraqi woman in Amman told Human Rights Watch during the last school year, “and all the children are staying home. Nobody goes to school.”
Earlier this year, Iraqi parents in Amman told Human Rights Watch that they had received notices from the Ministry of Education telling them that their children would not be allowed to enrol in public schools this year. School principals were telling them the same thing.
Like last year, the government sent mixed signals this past week about its willingness to enrol Iraqi children without residency permits. According to news reports, Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit told a visiting Iraqi dignitary last Thursday that Jordan was taking measures to facilitate residency permit procedures for Iraqis. This, in turn, he suggested would enable their children to attend public schools. But the prime minister’s remarks were too late, too vague, and too poorly publicised to inform Iraqi parents about the steps they might take to allow their children to go to school yesterday.
Now, belatedly, the government has only a few weeks to change its policy by allowing children, regardless of residency status, to attend school and making sure that Iraqi parents fully understand this change.
If not, the UN committee that meets on Sept. 22 to review compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child is likely to find Jordan in violation of its legal obligation to ensure the right of all children to free and compulsory primary education. The convention guarantees each child this right “without discrimination of any kind” and irrespective of the child’s or parent’s nationality or status.
Education is doubly important for Iraqi children. For the many that have been traumatised by violence, school is a refuge and a source of hope. An Iraqi refugee, who was imprisoned and tortured under the Baathist regime, told me that he no longer thinks of his own future, but only that of his children. “School is a psychological benefit for them,” he said. “It is the only place they can breathe fresh air. They can’t wait for the next day to go to school. On vacation days, I see them get more anxious.” He said that the government’s announcement has crushed his daughter. “She wanted to be a scientist, a doctor, but now they have cut her wings.”
Iraqi children and their parents are not responsible for the war and persecution that have forced them to flee their country, and they should not be blamed for their lack of residency status. Jordan does not have a refugee law to enable it to grant asylum and permission to stay for people seeking its protection. It does not even issue residence permits to persons recognised as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. So far, the only Iraqis eligible for Jordanian residency permits are those who qualify according to normal immigration criteria, such as investors or people who have sought-after skills. Consequently, many thousands of Iraqis live in the shadows of Jordanian society.
The government should immediately and unambiguously announce that all children are welcome in public schools, regardless of their immigration status. Since many Iraqi parents will be fearful, the government should also immediately embark on a public information campaign to persuade them that sending their kids to school will not jeopardise their status in Jordan and that their children will be treated with understanding and respect.
Anything less would be to punish children who have already suffered enough.
The writer is director of the Refugee Policy Program at Human Rights Watch.