III. Background

Today, Jordan has the highest ratio of refugees to total population of any country in the world.11 Palestinian refugees registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) comprise about 30 percent of Jordan’s population of 5.8 million people.12 In addition to this long-standing refugee population who fled or were expelled from Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories from the west, one of the largest new influxes of “de facto refugees” in recent years—now numbering at least 500,000 and possibly as many as one million—has fled from Jordan’s neighbor to the east, Iraq.13

Iraq and Jordan share historical ties. Iraq’s monarch, before the country became a republic in 1958, was a brother of Jordan’s king, both of them descendents of the Hashemite family of Saudi Arabia.14 Iraq was also Jordan’s most important trading partner,15 and, as a comparatively stable country, has long offered safety and relative freedom to Iraqis fleeing political upheaval and repression.16

The numbers of Iraqis fleeing to Jordan began to rise from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand in the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein brutally repressed Shi`a Iraqis, Kurds (though few Iraqi Kurds fled to Jordan), and any others who dissented from his rule. Another cause for flight was the accelerating economic decline and dire humanitarian situation in Iraq, caused in part by a comprehensive sanctions regime placed on Iraq by the UN Security Council. By the start of the war in April 2003, Jordan was estimated to host between 250,000 and 300,000 refugees.17 The 2003 war and its continuing aftermath brought new waves of Iraqis to Jordan, at least doubling their number by 2006. Amman’s population is estimated to have grown by as much as one-third since the war began.18

Until November 2005 the Jordanian government and Jordanian law enforcement officials had demonstrated considerable leniency in enforcing immigration laws, usually deporting Iraqis only if they violated other laws. Jordanian hospitality and tolerance toward Iraqis came under particular stress, however, when three Iraqis killed 60 people by setting off bombs in three large hotels in Amman in November 2005.

Although Iraqi nationals in Jordan interviewed by Human Rights Watch rarely alleged being personally harassed or abused in the aftermath of those bombings, resentment is rising and the government is cracking down on young Iraqis staying and working illegally.19 Attitudes among Jordanians also appear to be hardening, and Iraqis appear increasingly at risk of being scapegoated for a wide variety of social problems. An observer wrote:

When I ask Jordanians about Iraqis in their midst, they voice sentiments like these: “The Iraqis make it harder for us because prices are going up…”; “Youth who want to get married say they can’t find apartments because the prices are too high…”; “Iraqis are taking all of the jobs…”; “Employers favor them because they can have them for less pay…”; “We had a safe, secure Jordan, but crime is rising. Now there is prostitution, robbery, and theft.”20

UNHCR’s tally of detained asylum seekers jumped from a monthly average of 16 cases to 40 cases in November 2005, the month of the hotel bombings.21 After the bombings, Jordan appears to have increasingly begun deporting visa “overstayers” back to Iraq and now denies entry to increasing numbers of Iraqis at the border, according to unofficial accounts.22 Taxi drivers on the Baghdad-Amman route and Iraqis who had made the journey to Amman told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian officials are now turning back the majority of Iraqis seeking entry at the land border at al-Karama, the only land crossing between Iraq and Jordan.23


11 The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants’ World Refugee Survey annually compiles a chart on the Ratio of Refugees to Selected Host Country Populations. From 1993 until 2003 it listed Jordan as the country with the world’s highest refugee to total population ratio. Jordan lost this distinction in the 2004 and 2005 Surveys when the editors changed their method of counting refugees (no longer accepting UNRWA’s refugee figures). In 2006, when the World Refugee Survey counted 450,000 Iraqi refugees, in addition to 158,200 Palestinians, and 1,300 others, Jordan, once again, topped the list of countries with the highest ratio of refugees to total population. U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, “Table 13: Ratios of Refugees to Host Country Populations,” World Refugee Survey 2006, p. 14 (note that the Occupied Palestinian Territories has a higher ratio, but is not a country). Table available at: (accessed June 22, 2006).

12 The Population Reference Bureau gives Jordan’s population in mid-2005 as 5,795,000. (accessed June 22, 2006). UNRWA has registered 1,780,701 Palestinian refugees in Jordan, as of March 31, 2005. UNRWA statistics at: (accessed June 22, 2006).

13 Ministry of Interior officials told Human Rights Watch that the number was about 500,000, but could fluctuate by 100,000 in either direction. UNHCR officials estimated about 750,000. A recent New York Times article said, “Iraqi officials and international organizations put the number of Iraqis in Jordan at close to a million.” Sabrina Tavernise, “As Death Stalks Iraq, Middle-Class Exodus Begins,” New York Times, May 19, 2006.

14 In 1916, Sharif Husayn, the ruler of Mecca and head of the Hashemite family, revolted against Ottoman rule, joining forces with the British against the Ottoman Empire. Husayn’s revolt followed extensive correspondence with British officials, in which the British encouraged Arab hopes of independence. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British installed ‘Abdullah, son of Husayn, to be Amir of what was then called Transjordan (1923-46). He then became King of Jordan from 1946 until his assassination in 1951. The British also installed his brother, Faysal, to be king of Iraq (1921-1933). Husayn himself ruled over the Hijaz (1916-1924), briefly followed by his son ‘Ali (1924-5) until the Hijaz was incorporated into present-day Saudi Arabia under the rule of ‘Abd al-Aziz (1926-53). See Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) at 315-322, 507.

15 “Iraq and U.S. Top List of Jordan’s Trade Partners,” Jordan Times, January 22, 2003. Available at: (accessed July 31, 2006).

16 UNHCR, Country Operations Plan, Jordan, Planning Year: 2006, Revision September 2005, part 1 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

17 Human Rights Watch, Iraqi Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Displaced Persons: Current Conditions and Concerns in the Event of War, February 2003, at 15, note 91. Available at: (accessed July 6, 2006).  

18 Jay Solomon, “Bombings in Jordan Stress War’s Impact—Influx of Iraqis and Wealth Bring Growth and Tension,” The Wall Street Journal Asia, November 11, 2005.

19 Because most Iraqi nationals in Jordan came with valid passports and were inspected, provided visas, and admitted, Human Rights Watch does not refer to them generally as “undocumented.” However, those who have overstayed their visas (many of whom still carry valid passports) and/or those without work authorization will be referred to as residing or working illegally.

20 Ingrid McDonald, “The War Next Door,” American Scholar, Vol. 75, No. 2, April 1, 2006.

21 Email from UNHCR-Amman to Human Rights Watch, May 24, 2006.

22 See Rejection at the Border and Arrests and Deportations of Iraqi Nationals, below.

23 See Rejection at the Border, below.