The Jordanian government in a welcome step has pledged to provide public health care and education to Iraqis living in Jordan regardless of their legal status, but continues to refuse to recognize them as refugees, Human Rights Watch said today.
For the first time, Jordan has officially pledged to allow Iraqi children to attend public schools regardless of their residency status. Of an estimated 200,000 school-age Iraqi children in Jordan, only 20,000 went to school last year, of whom only about 6,000 completed the school year. Iraqis who overstayed their tourist visas or residency permits will also receive public health care, the World Health Organization reported.
“It is commendable that Jordanian officials are recognizing the rights of all children to education and the rights of all people, regardless of legal status, to basic health care,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “But Jordan is blocking the entry of most Iraqis attempting to flee the violence in their country and is unwilling to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis living in Jordan are, in fact, refugees.”
Jordan has virtually closed its borders and, with few exceptions, is not allowing Iraqis to enter the country. Iraqis or their professional sponsors must now pay a US$5,000 deposit guaranteeing their departure. Jordan routinely turns back most Iraqis at the borders or airport. It does not conduct interviews with Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan to determine whether they are fleeing persecution or generalized violence and does not allow the UN refugee agency to do so. On July 27, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a joint appeal for $130 million to provide educational opportunities for an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children of school age in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.
“The international community bears a responsibility to support refugees inside Jordan and at its borders,” said Frelick. “International donors should quickly and generously support the UN appeal and directly support Jordan and other host countries so that they can meet the education needs of Iraqi refugees.”
Jordan has also closed its border during the past three years to a group of 194 Iranian Kurds who fled Iran in 1980 and became recognized refugees in Iraq. They remain stranded in the no-man’s land between the Iraqi and Jordanian land borders under harsh conditions without regular access to water, food or medicines because Jordan has refused them entry. The Kurds, who were recently joined by another group of 38 Iranian Arab refugees stranded in Iraq, say they fear persecution if they were to resettle to a northern Iraqi camp which has been offered to them.
“While alleviating the plight of Iraqi refugees already in Jordanian cities, the government should not lose sight of the fact that others, including Iranians and Palestinians, are fleeing Iraq to save their lives,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Refugees have a right to seek safety and should never be returned to danger.”
Jordan hosts a higher number of Iraqi refugees per citizen than any of its neighbors. There are an estimated 800,000 Iraqis in Jordan, which has a population of 5.6 million, most of whom have overstayed their visas or residency permits.
After years of conflicting public policy that gradually pushed Iraqi children to costly private schools or out of education altogether, Jordan pledged at an international conference in Amman on July 26 to admit Iraqi schoolchildren this year regardless of their residency status.
On August 3, the World Health Organization announced that Egypt, Syria and Jordan had committed to providing Iraqis with health services equivalent to those their citizens enjoy. While Iraqi refugees in Jordan already had access to state-subsidized health-care, some could not afford even the small fees to access government services. Under the new commitment, Jordan will give priority “to ensuring access for displaced Iraqis to the most essential health services.”