Refugee wave takes toll on Jordan

November 20, 2006|By Jumana Al-Tamimi

When a friend half-jokingly told me, "When I hear the Jordanian accent in Amman, I feel happy," it was another way of conveying her dismay at the prevalence of the Iraqi accent in the Jordanian capital.

Iraqis are obvious and everywhere in Jordan: in caf?s, hotels, shopping centers, grocery stores and apartments. Luxury cars with Iraqi plates fill the streets, while restaurants offering tashreeb (the Iraqi dish of chicken or beef with bread soaked in the meat juices) serve patrons nightly in Amman. Iraqi women sell cigarettes, tissues and other sundries on many street corners, and Iraqi electricians and handymen offer their services at attractive prices.

Since the 2003 war and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Jordan has welcomed Iraqis to the Hashemite kingdom. Such was the case with other Arab neighbors who fled to Jordan during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s and the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But Jordan can't continue to go along to get along - not with the high numbers of Iraqis living in Jordan and no end in sight to the Iraq war.

The pressure of hosting thousands of Iraqis indefinitely may have negative consequences for Jordan, which has a population of nearly 6 million. The situation requires better scrutiny and stronger measures to regulate Iraqis' stays.

Jordanian economist Fahed Al Fanek says there are upward of 1.2 million Iraqis in Jordan, but no one knows for sure. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 500,000 of the 1.6 million Iraqis who have fled their country since the war settled in Jordan. Nearly 450,000 went to Syria, where at least 40,000 Iraqis arrive each month, according to the U.N. agency.

Many Iraqis in Jordan date from the first gulf war and the ensuing years of U.N. economic sanctions that made life in Iraq difficult. Iraqis don't need a visa to enter Jordan. Upon arrival, they are given a three-month visa, which can be renewed.

Many Iraqi doctors, professors, businessmen and other professionals, however, have been granted Jordanian residency permits. A brain drain for Iraq has been a brain gain for Jordan. These professionals arrive in Jordan with money, which has benefited the economy. A joint study by the Jordanian Royal Scientific Society and the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung estimates that Iraqis who fled to Jordan after the start of the 2003 war brought with them about $2 billion.

The percentage of total Iraqi investment in Jordanian companies also has risen, from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 23.8 in 2004, according to the most recent figures available.

The Iraqi newcomers have posed no security threat or risk to Jordan. They have formed no political groups or parties in the kingdom, nor are they allowed to vote.

The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq has not been replicated here. That is a source of comfort in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, says Musa Shetwi, a sociologist who directs the Jordanian Center for Social Studies.

But the numbers of Iraqis in Jordan are increasing pressure on services, utilities and meager natural resources such as water and energy. Traffic jams, limited usually to the summer vacation season, are a daily occurrence.

Many middle-class Jordanians are having trouble meeting their needs, and housing prices have increased. Iraqis top the list of foreigners who buy real estate in Jordan, and their numbers have more than doubled, from 125 property owners in 2002 to more than 584 in 2004. The average cost of housing far exceeds what the average Jordanian can afford, according to Mr. Shetwi. (The World Bank estimates annual per capita GDP in Jordan to be $4,800.) If the situation continues, "this will have social, political and economic ramifications," Mr. Shetwi predicted.

For historical and nationalistic reasons, Jordan won't close its borders to Iraqis - not yet. Jordanians recognize the dire situation in Baghdad and its environs, but they don't feel they should have to pay a high price for their hospitality.

The authorities need to keep track of Iraqis who cross into Jordan by enforcing visa requirements and establishing a more transparent residency permit system. That would reassure Jordanians that their everyday life is in their own hands.

Jumana Al-Tamimi is an editor at the Gulf News in Dubai. She returns to her native Jordan frequently. Her e-mail is jaltamimi@gulfnews.com.

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