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One of the most uncomfortable realities both for the US president and his Jordanian hosts is the existence of more than half a million refugees living in Jordan, who have fled persecution and violence as a consequence of Bush’s war in next door Iraq.

One of the most uncomfortable of those realities both for the US president and his Jordanian hosts is the existence of more than half a million refugees who have fled persecution and violence as a consequence of Bush’s war in next door Iraq.

For Bush to acknowledge their existence — as well as another half million Iraqi refugees scattered in Syria and other countries throughout the region — is to admit the failure of his enterprise, thus far, to transform Iraq into a model of democracy and stability and to acknowledge the regional human fallout of the disastrous human rights situation that prevails in Iraq today.

Jordan, too, prefers to ignore the refugee problem and, to the extent it acknowledges the existence of Iraqis at all, to treat them as immigrants or temporary visitors, and not to acknowledge their needs for assistance and protection, which would entail responsibility to attend to those needs.

During the first two years of the war, Jordan allowed Iraqis to enter the Kingdom on one- or three-month visas issued at the border — as it had for about a quarter million Iraqis who left Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era to escape repression and the effects of economic sanctions. As they did before the war, Jordanian authorities looked the other way after April 2003 when Iraqis overstayed their visas, demonstrating considerable leniency in enforcing immigration laws on the understanding that the Iraqis would remain self sufficient and make no demands.

Jordanian hospitality and tolerance towards Iraqis changed however after November 2005, when three Iraqi nationals killed 90 people by setting off bombs in three large hotels in Amman. Since the hotel bombings, Jordanian officials have stepped up immigration enforcement: turning away large numbers of Iraqis seeking entry at the border, making it harder for Iraqis inside Jordan to renew their visas and remain in legal status, and arresting Iraqis for working or residing illegally once they lose their legal right to remain in the country.

Living illegally in Jordan creates a pervasive climate of anxiety among the Iraqi population. Those who work illegally are prone to accepting exploitative or marginal employment. They are often over-qualified for these menial jobs, but earn less than Jordanians for the same work. Iraqi children living in Jordan also face substantial barriers to education. Iraqi children are not able to attend public schools, and Iraqi children without resident permits are not allowed to attend private schools either — the denial of the basic right of any child to free and compulsory primary education.

Since the Amman bombings, Jordan has more regularly deported Iraqis who overstay their visas and more often denied them entry to the country. Human Rights Watch releases a report on Iraqi refugees in Jordan this week that documents cases of refoulement — forced return — both of Iraqi asylum seekers holding cards issued by the UN refugee agency and of Iraqis who were not registered with UNHCR but who expressed to the authorities their fear of return. In addition, frequent travellers, such as taxi drivers, report to Human Rights Watch that more Iraqis are turned away at the Jordan-Iraq border since the Amman bombings.

At a minimum, the Jordanian government must meet its international customary law obligations not to return Iraqis to persecution or torture. This principle — nonrefoulement — applies to asylum seekers who, de facto, may be refugees, but who have not had the opportunity to be officially recognised as such. The principle of nonrefoulement also applies to people seeking asylum at the border whose rejection would likely subject them to persecution or other serious harm.

The United States and other countries should provide significant support to Jordan, Syria, and other countries in the region who bear a refugee burden not of their own making. Through financial assistance, refugee resettlement, and other means of support, the United States can encourage Jordan to keep its borders open to people desperately seeking safety and to provide those temporarily residing in Jordan with the means to live in dignity until it is safe for them to go home safely and voluntarily.

This level of international support is unlikely to be forthcoming, however, if Jordan does not openly recognise the refugee problem and ask for international help to address it. King Abdullah’s meeting with Bush is the perfect moment to raise the refugee problem and to ask for US support to return Jordan to its historical tradition of hospitality to refugees.

The writer, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, is the author of “The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan,” being released this week in Amman. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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