In December 2015, Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers staged a month-long sit in outside the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman, Jordan.
They were protesting what they see as race and nationality-based discrimination by the UNHCR and aid organizations against Sudanese and Somali refugees. It ended with the detention of some 800 protesters by Jordanian police and the deportation of hundreds of refugees in violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement (the prohibition on returning a refugee to a country where he faces harm or persecution). Jordan has the second highest population of refugees per capita of any country in the world, but is not a party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Jordan’s refugee policy is dictated instead by a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UNHCR, which allows UNHCR to operate in Jordan and stipulates that refugees in Jordan must be treated according to international standards. The MOU and customary international law both forbid refoulement of refugees.
While the Jordanian authorities’ crackdown received widespread condemnation at the time, the hardships which lead the refugees to protest have not been alleviated. Their plight highlights the global problems of extremely scarce resources for the many refugees in Jordan, and the unwillingness of other countries to donate money or accept refugees for resettlement. Approximately 4,000 Sudanese and Somali refugees reside in Jordan, a very small population compared to two million Palestinian refugees, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians. A report by the Middle East Research and Information Project argues that the acute hardship suffered by Sudanese and Somali refugees has resulted from the relatively small size of the populations, lack of awareness of their plight, the perceived inferiority of their race, and the UNHCR’s practice of distributing aid based on nationality.
Most refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan have no legal right to work. The Jordanian government expanded access to work permits for refugees in late 2016, but only Syrians working within certain industries are eligible. As a result, refugees rely heavily on aid to survive, but non-Syrian refugees are at a disadvantage for receiving it. An Atlantic article explains that, “A hungry child from Darfur gets as much ‘concern’ as one from Aleppo [Syria], but not the same access to blankets, water, and food.” Aid organizations do not withhold aid to discriminate, but rather to honor the wishes of the many donors who earmark their donations for Syrian refugees only. Staff members of aid organizations point out that, given their severely limited resources, they must prioritize the most severe crises; however, individual refugees who are refused aid due to their nationality understandably find their de-prioritization unfair. Prior to the Syrian crisis, Iraqis were similarly identified as the neediest population and prioritized by donors and organizations for aid. A Sudanese client of Jesuit Refugee Services in Amman reacted, saying, “Even if it is not meant to be racist, it feels like it is another form of discrimination against us.”
In addition to limited access to aid, newly arriving non-Syrian refugees currently face additional barriers in their legal processes. Because of the severity of the Syrian civil war, Jordan grants arriving Syrians prima facie eligibility for refugee status, which allows them access to protection, aid, and possible resettlement. Sudanese and other refugees, on the other hand, must apply for refugee status, a process which can take years. When viewed from the perspective of UNHCR, this system makes sense: Iraqis were offered prima facie refugee status in Jordan from 2007 to 2012, and Sudanese were offered prima facie eligibility during the war in Darfur. However, in practice this difference in legal process has a serious effect on refugees’ lives.
In addition to the practical challenges faced by Sudanese and Somali refugees, Sudanese residents of Jordan also report facing widespread racism, harassment and discrimination on a personal level throughout Jordanian society. The MOU between the UNHCR and Jordan establishes that UNHCR should handle legal processing and humanitarian aid and enumerates some basic rights for refugees such as freedom from racial discrimination, the right to work wherever regulations permit, and equal access to justice. Nevertheless, the experiences of refugees, especially those from Sudan and Somalia, often fall short of these ideals.
Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), a Jordanian legal services NGO and UNHCR implementing partner, released a report advocating for a fairer aid system which addresses “needs over nationality.” The authors urge service providers to prioritize individuals with the greatest need, regardless of their nationality, pointing out that Somali and Sudanese refugees receive little aid despite being among the most vulnerable people in Jordan. Restructuring systems of aid would require actions on the part of UNHCR and NGOs, as well as changing attitudes of donors, but would make a big difference in the lives of the most vulnerable refugees. The root problem, of course, is the scarcity of resources overall. While NGOs and the UNHCR are underfunded and other countries do not step up to resettle vulnerable refugees living in Jordan, there will never be enough aid to meet refugees’ needs.