The school in Dahiyat Amir Hasan in East Amman is only half-finished, but even through the rubble and the clouds of concrete dust it is clear that the education there will be very different than in Jordan’s other government-run schools. The classrooms are spacious and positioned around multi-purpose areas that can be used for team teaching or supervised recreation. Downstairs there are science labs equipped with vapor hoods, sinks and Bunsen burners, and set up for students to conduct experiments in groups. There is a gym, an art studio and a music chamber — none of which facilities are standard in Jordanian public schools. The corresponding subjects, in fact, are often left out of the curriculum. The Dahiyat Amir Hasan school offers nothing that would seem out of place to an American sixth-grader, but in a country where rote learning is still the basis of most education, it is almost revolutionary.

According to the latest government estimates, Jordan has a population of just over 6 million, with more than 2 million children of school age, plus 750,000 more under four years old. The government is straining to build enough classrooms to accommodate the youngsters, let alone update its curricula and teaching methods. The Dahiyat Amir Hasan school is part of an effort to absorb the burgeoning number of students while at the same time introducing new pedagogical techniques. “In the twenty-first century, teaching kids by rote method is just not going to get you the type of thinkers [you need],” says Jay Knott, head of the US Agency for International Development in Jordan, which is funding the school’s construction. “It’s not going to advance you toward the vision of a knowledge-based economy.”

USAID is erecting 28 of these high-end schools in low-income neighborhoods all over Jordan. The agency is also renovating and building additions to 100 existing schools. But there is a small catch: Much of this construction is underwritten with money appropriated by Congress for the purpose of aiding Iraqi refugees living in Jordan.

There is no agreement about how well, or even whether, the nearly $400 million received by Jordan for displaced Iraqis has served the target population. Many involved in aid provision say that improvements to Jordanian infrastructure — schools, hospitals, water pipes — are the only fair, effective way to help the uncounted numbers of Iraqis who have fled the fighting in their home country since the 2003 US invasion. But many NGO workers, academics and independent researchers argue that the aid deliveries have failed to meet the needs of the Iraqi displaced.

The USAID school program is an example that could support both arguments. Since 2007, Jordan has allowed all Iraqi children to attend government schools and, according to Knott, USAID is relieving the burden on public services by locating its new schools where large concentrations of Iraqis live. American and UN officials also point out that aid has helped to create what they call “protection space” for Iraqis, that is, access to basic services and safety from harassment and deportation. But while some Iraqis will surely benefit from the new schools, it is now widely recognized that the number of displaced Iraqis in Jordan is vastly smaller than previously thought. The widely circulated estimate of 750,000, which drew attention to the displacement crisis in 2007, and was once suspected to be a gross undercount, has been discarded as far too high, perhaps by a factor of six. Many of the most needy Iraqis, moreover, have been resettled in third countries, and more will be gone long before the first of the schools that are supposed to serve them opens in the fall of 2011. Schools built in the expectation of seeing hundreds of Iraqi students may end up teaching a handful, or none at all.

It is difficult to determine who is right about the effectiveness of this aid program. Because the government of Jordan played a major role in inflating estimates of the number of Iraqis in the country, some contend that the government hijacked the aid and redirected it toward favored national programs — while discussion of better options was discouraged. But the situation is complex. Much of the aid sent to Iraqis, particularly from the US, was subject to a political agenda long before it arrived in Jordan. And irrespective of the number of Iraqis, Jordan’s development needs are tremendous—as illustrated by the 2 million school-aged children. It could be argued that redirecting aid towards school building was less an act of hijacking than a transfer of funds from an issue important to foreign donors to long-term local challenges that, while equally important, earn less international attention. Seen in that light, the Jordanian government made a savvy political response to an already politicized aid program. What the case demonstrates is that aid seldom does quite what it was intended to do — not only in kleptocratic “failed states,” but also in middle-income countries like Jordan. The political priorities of the givers rarely coincide with those in the places where the aid dollars land.

Tolerated “Guests”

In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and its partner NGOs prepared supplies for a flood of war refugees. The flood never came, but in subsequent years Iraqis trickled into Jordan, escaping persecution, looking for jobs or just hoping to get out of Baghdad until things got better. Many were members of Baghdad’s middle classes, though religious minorities (mainly Christians, Sabeans and Yazidis) from other areas were also disproportionately represented. [1] The Iraqis acquired temporary residence permits at the border, and wound up living primarily in Amman and other Jordanian cities. Some came with the intent to settle; others expected their presence to be short-term, but with the situation in Iraq growing worse, ended up prolonging their stay.

UNHCR was surprised, in 2006, when its partner agencies started reporting substantial numbers of vulnerable, displaced Iraqis coming to them for aid. Over the following months it became clear that many displaced Iraqis were not returning and were facing increasing difficulty remaining in Jordan. The fact that the Iraqis were dispersed among Jordan’s urban population, rather than isolated in camps, presented the UNHCR with an unusual challenge for which it had, at the time, no formal policy. Early guesses put the number of Iraqis in Jordan between 500,000 and 1 million, and though many of these people were long-term residents who had come during the 1991 Gulf war or earlier, the media described them indiscriminately as refugees, evoking images of poor, huddled masses. The UN and news reports began speaking of a crisis.

For Congress, taken over by the Democrats in the 2006 elections, the plight of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere was one more indictment of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying the US had a “clear obligation” to provide more relief to the refugees and resettle more of them in America. [2] Congress held hearings on the mass displacement and grilled Ellen Sauerbrey, President George W. Bush’s recess appointment to head refugee assistance efforts at the State Department, because she was seen as a symbol of White House denial on the relief front.

In Jordan, the international attention to the displaced Iraqis was not terribly well received. As documented by the anthropologist Geraldine Chatelard, Jordanian officials were initially inclined to see the Iraqis as a security or economic issue rather than a humanitarian one. They feared the crisis narrative would lead to Iraqis becoming like the millions of Palestinian refugees to whom Jordan already plays host, many of whom are provided their own schools and social services through the UN. From the outset, Jordan made it clear that it would not accept such an outcome. The government argued that many displaced Iraqis were not refugees — instead, they were “guests” whose stay would be temporary. They noted that Jordan and Iraq have long had a porous border, which is regularly traversed by all manner of traders, investors and smugglers. (Commerce goes some way toward explaining why Jordan never closed its border to Iraqis, despite its worries about refugees.)

It was readily apparent, however, that not everyone was a “guest.” In November 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report charging Jordan with trying to keep a large number of Iraqi refugees essentially invisible. [3] Wealthy Iraqis, the report established, were able to buy residency permits, and with them the right to live, work and gain access public services in Jordan. Those who could not afford this solution found themselves in limbo, with no legal status, no jobs, and little to no health care or education for their children. The authorities tolerated their presence, but these “guests” lived in constant fear of harassment or deportation. (The Jordanian government has always denied that deportations were common.) The arrival of substantial numbers of Iraqis after 2003 also corresponded with a period of marked inflation in Jordan, mostly due to macro-economic factors, which made survival particularly challenging for the poorest. [4]

Jordanian officials said they would develop a strategy to address the Iraqi displacement crisis only after a comprehensive sociological survey. “We are hoping to identify accurate numbers and categories of Iraqis,” said government spokesman Nasser Judeh in February 2007. “Who’s waiting to be resettled by UNHCR? Who’s waiting for final immigration procedures to third countries? Who’s just visiting and going back to Iraq? You know, we don’t know,” he said. “Once you have that, then you can say: OK, government, study all these options, study the realities on the ground, come up with a policy. Before that, it’s ludicrous to do that.” (At the time, many media outlets, including this magazine, greeted such remarks with skepticism: Reporters were relying on the estimate of 750,000 Iraqis in Jordan and believed the government was downplaying the issue. As more data becomes available, it appears that Judeh’s assessment was in fact reasonable.)

The clearest sign that Jordan was changing its attitude came in April 2007 at a donors’ conference in Geneva. There, the secretary general of the Interior Ministry, Mukhaymar Abu Jamous, said that the Iraqis were costing Jordan $1 billion per year. He called on the international community to help shoulder the burden. [5] That year, UNHCR gave $21 million, about 60 percent of its operating budget for Jordan, to the Jordanian government. The idea was to build the capacity of such institutions as schools and hospitals to handle a huge Iraqi influx. The sizable donation, said agency representative Imran Riza, was a strong signal to Jordan that the international community would support the creation of “protection space” for the Iraqis. Jordanian authorities did their part by giving assurances to international aid agencies that Iraqis would not be deported without cause and by opening up access to local schools and hospitals at minimal fees, similar to those paid by locals. At the same time, the UNHCR, the US and other Western countries kicked off a vigorous resettlement program, sending tens of thousands of Iraqis abroad and helping to reassure the Jordanians that the Iraqis would not become a second Palestinian population.

The “protection space” purchased by the aid money has its critics. One mid-level official at an aid organization called the UNHCR funds a “bribe” to get the Jordanian government to acknowledge the presence of Iraqi refugees. Various parties have also pointed out that “protection” is provided to Iraqis at the whim of government officials — and could just as easily be withdrawn. “Arrangements under which most Iraqi refugees now find protection are informal and unstable,” wrote Philip Marfleet and Dawn Chatty in a 2009 report. “There is no regional policy nor sign of such a policy. Provision is ad hoc — based on ‘understandings’ between the UNHCR and the authorities — what one UNHCR officer calls a ‘tolerance’ regime.” [6]

“Tolerance” fit Jordan’s political imperative to avoid establishing formal rights or institutions for (more) displaced people. Jordanian officials have consistently insisted that the only solutions for displaced Iraqis were resettlement or repatriation. “Local integration,” as the UNHCR calls it, was off the table, and early on, the UN and donor countries adopted this line. One presumes that donors accepted Jordan’s position because if they had not, the Jordanians would have prevented them from working to ameliorate the crisis at all.

And so the aid poured in.

Missing Iraqis

From 2007–2009, Jordan received close to $400 million officially directed toward Iraqis, much of which went either to the government or into ventures like USAID’s school construction program, under the rubric of “supporting Jordan’s institutions.” The lion’s share came from the United States, and the volume of aid can be taken as a measure of how important, politically, the crisis had become. (There were also substantial increases in annual US economic and military aid during this period, on top of a one-time donation of $700 million in 2003, meant to help Jordan recover from the effects of the Iraq invasion.)

In 2008, Congress authorized $200 million in supplemental funding for Iraqi refugees, of which $110 million went straight to the Jordanian government and another $45 million to existing USAID programs in the water, health and education sectors. The European Union sent about $45 million to strengthen the Education Ministry in accommodating Iraqi needs. Of the funds not delivered to the government, most went to international NGOs — CARE International for food and cash assistance, Caritas for free medical clinics, Save the Children and Questscope for supplemental educational services, and a number of other organizations for community and psychosocial assistance. These efforts helped many vulnerable Iraqis meet their most basic needs.

All these programs had ambitions to serve large numbers of Iraqis. But because Iraqis were living side by side with Jordanians, the programs were also required to help vulnerable Jordanians in the same areas. Most agencies set quotas stipulating that 25–50 percent of the beneficiaries should be Jordanians, though in reality the number was often much higher. Some NGOs also adopted the approach of “supporting local institutions”: For example, Save the Children and the International Medical Corps worked to bolster Jordanian mental health clinics, enabling them to provide care to Iraqis suffering from trauma and other psychological conditions.

During the same period, from late 2007 to early 2009, evidence was emerging that the number of Iraqis in Jordan was nowhere near the early estimates. In April-May 2007, the Norwegian NGO Fafo and Jordan’s Department of Statistics carried out the comprehensive survey that Nasser Judeh had mentioned. Jordan expected the study to back the claim that Iraqis were an enormous burden on the country, but the survey supported an estimate of only 161,000 Iraqis in Jordan, just a fraction of whom appeared to be poor, persecuted or otherwise in need of aid or resettlement. Fafo’s findings, indeed, suggested a likely figure of 50,000–75,000 Iraqis who were vulnerable. The Jordanians delayed release of the study for months, and when it was finally published, the government had added its own headline figure of 500,000 — a number it said was drawn from border crossings and cell phone registrations.

Over subsequent years, other data have backed up the Fafo survey’s low estimate. The number of Iraqis registered as refugees with the UNHCR has fluctuated, but was never much higher than 65,000. When the government opened up public schools to Iraqis in 2007 (prior to the release of the Fafo report), everyone expected some 50,000 Iraqi students to enroll immediately, with more to follow. But, according to both the Education Ministry and Save the Children, the number of students increased by fewer than 12,000. In 2008, leaked Ministry numbers, widely circulated in the NGO community, seemed to indicate that the number was even smaller—in the low thousands.

Meanwhile, NGO officials running direct aid programs for Iraqis observed that the number of Jordanians coming to them for help often dwarfed the number of Iraqis. Jason Erb, deputy country director at Save the Children throughout the crisis, said in a 2008 interview that some programs had to cut off registration because Jordanians outnumbered Iraqis by such a wide margin. “A lot of the time, the Jordanians in these programs were much poorer than the Iraqis.” Poverty, Erb pointed out, is relative: Many displaced Iraqis were former members of the middle class who had been forced to downgrade their lifestyles in exile, but they were living in communities that had been thoroughly impoverished for a generation or more.

Certainties about the Iraqi population in Jordan remain elusive. Geraldine Chatelard has extensively studied the tendency of Iraqis in exile to live in hiding and avoid authority structures and formal connections. [7] In one paper, she cites estimates of 250,000–300,000 Iraqis living in Jordan even before 2003. [8] What is clear, however, is that if these Iraqis were present, they were not choosing to obtain aid or resettlement services. By late 2008, after two years of efforts to find the “missing” Iraqis, donors and aid agencies universally (if quietly) acknowledged that the number of needy Iraqis was far smaller than anticipated. The Jordanian government never did.

Nearly everyone notes as well that the funds available for displaced Iraqis and the countries that host them have hugely outstripped other refugee crises around the world — another sign that Iraqis were getting particular attention from donors. The gap holds even when looking only at the UNHCR budgets in its annual reports. In 2009, for example, the UNHCR actually assisted 46,600 Iraqis in Jordan and its Jordan budget for the year was just over $39 million. Compare these numbers to Chad, where the UNHCR is assisting more than a quarter-million refugees from war-torn Sudan, as well as thousands from other African nations. For nearly 485,000 beneficiaries, the UNCHR spent $96.5 million. Per capita the refugee agency disbursed about four times as much in Jordan as in Chad. In Kenya, which hosts more than 300,000 Somali refugees, the UNHCR received about 17 percent of the amount of aid per capita as it did in Jordan. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, site of one of the world’s worst refugee crises, where the agency is actively assisting nearly 600,000 people, that number was 15.1 percent. Jordan also received more aid per capita than any other Middle Eastern country embroiled in the Iraqi displacement crisis—nearly twice as much as Syria, 1.4 times as much as Lebanon and 3.6 times as much as Iraq itself.

As the disparity between the official and actual numbers of Iraqis in Jordan grew clearer, those numbers became a very sore subject—and the government was increasingly unwilling to discuss them. “Most important in relation to the issue of numbers was the official sensitivity questioning of the statistics inspired. Thus agencies supporting refugees found themselves seemingly at odds with officials rather than planning jointly and in a transparent and effective manner,” writes Harriet Dodd, Jordan country director for CARE International from 2006–2009, in a soon-to-be published paper for the Middle East Institute. Quite simply, the Iraqi displacement crisis was no longer just a security issue for Jordan, but also a source of external patronage.

Who Needs Aid?

The false perception that 750,000 Iraqis were languishing in Jordan may have been necessary to get the world’s attention. Even Dodd, who is highly critical of the aid response, writes, “No funds would have been forthcoming without reference to half a million people.” But Jordan’s role in inflating the numbers, combined with its insistence that aid be targeted at communities rather than at individual Iraqi families, and its reluctance to adopt permanent local solutions, have fed a belief that Jordan delivered relatively little in exchange for the aid windfall.

Dodd, for instance, argues that the aid actually reaching Iraqis, primarily through the UNHCR and its partners, though substantial, was insufficient to address the needs of this particular population. The goal, she says, should have been to keep the exiled members of Iraq’s productive classes productive, so they could contribute to developing Jordan and rebuilding Iraq, rather than fleeing to the West or becoming another permanent underclass in an unstable region. “We’re not just talking about treading water here,” she says she told her Jordanian interlocutors. “We don’t just want these people to stay in the same place…. We actually want them to go back and become our business partners for the future.” But seeing Iraqis as the embodiment of a big humanitarian crisis prevented this kind of approach from being discussed. “Are you dealing with a hole that’s 100 feet wide or 10 feet wide? Because the solution is different in either case!” Dodd continues. “We could have dealt with 50,000 refugees, who had very little, much more effectively, provided the funding had been appropriate: The questions of how to resolve their difficulties with work, education and health assistance would have all been different.”

Many UN and US officials counter that it was optimal to provide aid to Iraqis through government institutions and make sure that aid was delivered to poor Jordanians as well as to Iraqis. A 2009 UNHCR report cited the agency’s “extensive support to national structures that provide services to refugees” as a major factor in establishing protection for Iraqi refugees in Jordan. The report praised the Jordan office for developing this and other approaches, which might be useful in future urban refugee crises. [9] US officials emphasize that projects like the USAID school construction and water infrastructure improvement were practical ways to avoid generating resentment of Iraqis among Jordanians. Knott takes the point further: “To me it’s not just practicality: It’s the best approach to improving education and health care.”

The irony remains, however, that the school in Dahiyat Amir Hasan, while it undoubtedly helps Jordan, may do little or nothing for Iraqis. As Erb, whose organization worked extensively in public and private schools, noted, “To find a public school with 20 [Iraqi] students, 25 students, was actually a bit unusual. There were a few that had 50, or maybe 55 — those tended to be in the better-off areas that were not eligible for our work. The schools in East Amman, where the most vulnerable populations were, just didn’t have very many Iraqis.”

How many Iraqi children really live in Dahiyat Amir Hasan? In 2008, USAID officials said they were aware of the numbers of Iraqis registered at the schools they are building, but they had been asked by the Jordanian government not to share the “sensitive” information. At any rate, they pointed out, they are looking to serve communities, not just Iraqis. Erb also thought that providing aid to communities was an effective strategy and, in some ways, takes the point even further. “We [at Save the Children] had some really good programs that helped a lot of kids, but it really wasn’t always helping Iraqis in the way that people expected,” he said. “If you looked at donor intention, it might not really have hit the nail on the head. But that shouldn’t be the only applicable standard, when the needs of everyone around are so much greater. Because of the restrictions on needing to meet certain percentages of Iraqi beneficiaries, we at first planned and programmed for numbers that were not there. The problem, I think, was that we had a kind of quota of Iraqis, and that was what led to the conflict…between agencies, stepping all over each other to find the last little pocket of Iraqis in Jordan.” In short: “As much as Iraqi refugees needed the assistance, it was frustrating sometimes that we had to focus so much on the Iraqis, because there was often greater need among Jordanians.”

This point is the critical one. Jordan is no Somalia, but its human needs are tremendous. It is one of the most water-poor countries in the world. Unemployment is officially at 13.5 percent, and some economists say the real number could be as high as 30 percent. More than 14 percent of Jordanians live below the poverty line. A huge proportion of the population — some say more than half — is made up of refugees from Palestine and elsewhere. The country is facing a demographic boom that will redouble the need for education and employment for millions of young people. The crisis of Iraqis in Jordan pales in comparison.

What, then, is the best use of aid money?

Full Circle

So far, the UN has submitted resettlement papers for more than 27,000 Iraqis, and thousands have departed Jordan for third countries. But there are some Iraqis who will never be eligible for resettlement for a variety of reasons, ranging from age, health and language skills to connections to Iraq’s former Baathist government. Some of them may return to Iraq at some point; others, because of the violence and persecution they have faced, will never do so. Repatriation, in general, is a dicey proposition with Iraq’s political future still unsettled. And funding for the Iraqi displacement crisis is drying up, as the world’s (and America’s) attention moves on.

Matters, in many ways, have come full circle. There is a group of Iraqis who are stuck in Jordan, and advocates are again looking for ways to provide them with substantive rights, to ensure they are neither sent home to peril nor warehoused as a permanent underclass without legal status. Most of the proposals floating around recommend some version of “aid for status,” whereby foreign assistance to Jordan would induce the government to give more Iraqis a pathway to legal residency, including the right to work. But as in 2006, the Jordanian government seems to regard this idea as too close to “local integration.” It would also raise too many uncomfortable questions about Jordan’s other populations with unclear status — for example, Gazans who came to Jordan after 1967 and cannot return to the Occupied Territories. These people were granted only temporary residency status in Jordan, which is difficult to maintain and heavily restricts work opportunities. [10] Attempts to discuss work-status arrangements for Iraqis with government officials quickly descend into tautology: Those who can get legal status can have the right to work.

The number of Iraqis in Jordan will probably remain small — in the low tens of thousands, if that — but the government continues to insist that there are 500,000 or more. The country’s relationship with international donors, who know better, is coming under strain.

Jordan says it will continue to supply services to Iraqis. “We have no other choice,” says Ministry of Planning Secretary General Salih al-Karabsha. “Those are our guests. And to be honest, Jordan was hoping the international community would continue to provide the required support to help the government provide services for those who live in Jordan.” Another set of ad hoc “tolerance” arrangements are likely in the offing, which will satisfy the political demands of all sides, regardless of what happens to the refugees. It is a pattern that will persist until the international community forgets that there was a crisis.

If there is a recommendation to be made, it would be a plea for more open acknowledgment of the fact that humanitarianism plays a tiny role in most “humanitarian” crises, and a hope for greater honesty from governments and donors in discussing the political dimensions of such crises in the future. Doing so might require that more attention be paid to long-term development than to emergency relief, but it might also yield better results for donors, governments and, most of all, the local populations that depend on the international community for their daily bread.


[1] Fafo/Jordan Department of Statistics, Iraqis in Jordan 2007: Their Number and Characteristics (November 2007), p. 13.
[2] Edward Kennedy, “We Can’t Ignore Iraq’s Refugees,” Washington Post, December 30, 2006.
[3] Human Rights Watch, The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan (New York, November 2006).
[4] David DeBartolo and Ibrahim Saif, The Iraq War’s Impact on Growth and Inflation in Jordan (Amman: Center for Strategic Studies, 2008).
[5] Jordan Times, July 27, 2007.
[6] Philip Marfleet and Dawn Chatty, Iraq’s Refugees: Beyond “Tolerance” (Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, 2009), p. 17.
[7] Geraldine Chatelard, “A Quest for Family Protection: The Fragmented Social Organization of Transnational Iraqi Migration,” paper delivered at the British Academy, London, March 28, 2008.
[8] Geraldine Chatelard, “Jordan as a Transit Country: Semi-Protectionist Immigration Policies and Their Effects on Iraqi Forced Migrants,” UNHCR Working Paper (August 2002).
[9] Jeff Crisp et al, Surviving in the City: A Review of UNHCR’s Operation for Iraqi Refugees in Urban Areas of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (Geneva: UNHCR, July 2009), pp. 49–51.
[10] Oroub El Abed, “Immobile Palestinians: Ongoing Plight of Gazans in Jordan,” Forced Migration Review 26 (August 2006).

How to cite this article:

Nicholas Seeley "The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan," Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).

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