Last time I was in Jordan, back in 2016, I spent most of my time and focus in Za’atari, the largest refugee camp for Syrians, in the northern part of the country. The camp was completing 4 years, and its size was winding down after it had peaked in 2013, with astounding 200,000 residents, most of them from Dara’a, the southern Syrian province, nearby the Jordanian border. By then, the residents amounted to around 78,000, give or take, living in caravans (a.k.a. containers) in the middle of the desert.
The lowering in numbers, I was explained at the time, was a combination of factors: some got resettled in other host countries, like Canada and Australia; others tried their luck in the hands of smugglers through the Turkey-Mediterranean route, and a bigger contingent left the camp and established themselves in cities around Jordan. The few families which I had contact with in Za’atari conveyed to me this sense of pause in their lives. “Temporary” was the word often used by refugees, international organizations officials, field officers. The camp is temporary. This situation is temporary. Their status is temporary. Full lives on hold. Until the war ends. Until resettlement is given. Until they can go back to work. Until they get to live again, not just survive.
As of April 2018, the last fact-sheet made available by the UNHCR on the current status of Za’atari puts the number of its residents at 78,804 – that is, the same levels of two years ago. The overall number of refugees in Jordan, in and outside camps, did not wind down either – the country is the current home for roughly 740,000 refugees, between Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Sudanese, Somali refugee populations, amongst others.
The reasons behind this stability are not really difficult to assess. In 2015, when the heightened attention on refugees over the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, coupled with the desperation scenes seen both in what were before trendy European seaside cities and as survivors tried to make their way through Europe, produced somewhat higher levels of resettlement in some countries of the continent. However, the political climate which emerged from this, fed by economic anxiety and, many times, by blatant xenophobia and racism, could not be worse for refugees and migrants. It resulted in a more closed world than the one envisioned for the 21st century. It meant keeping “undesirable people” away at all costs. It meant depriving people of opportunity, even though the crisis was – and is – not over.
This time, in Amman, the bulk of my work will be with urban refugees, most of them Iraqi, which means their offers for resettlement are even more scarce than those available for Syrians. As of today, there are 55,500 registered Iraqi refugees residing in Jordan. The majority do not have permits to work nor to pursue higher education in public institutions, which renders them even more vulnerable and fundamentally dependent on humanitarian aid.
They rely so much on what Mirian Ticktin called the regimes of care, “which include humanitarianism, certain movements for human rights (…), a set of regulated discourses and practices grounded on this moral imperative to relieve suffering (…) [which] come together through a diverse set of actors such as NGOs, international institutions, legal regimes, corporations, the military, and states”. According to her research, it has been seen that the structures formed by the regimes of care can “ultimately work to displace possibilities for larger forms of collective change, particularly for those most disenfranchised”.
This understanding comes from the fact that the structural, fundamental issues related to the vulnerable status of those groups cannot be solved within the humanitarian realm. They need to be addressed at the political level. They involve decision making regarding the conflicts themselves and their avenues for solutions, as well as foreign policy decisions by the world powers which more frequently than not foment said conflicts. They mean, in the frontline of first response, refugee resettlement and humane immigration policy. They extend even to the field of climate change. And all of these issues are political.
While the political solutions and resolutions do not come, humanitarian aid is necessary to relieve suffering in the short term, as refugees would be in a far worse situation without it. But as the temporary quickly converts to permanent, what is the role to be played by humanitarian actors? In which ways their mere presence can be a deterrent for States to assume their responsibilities? How they interact with the political space while claiming to remain detached from it?
As an aspiring human rights and development researcher and practitioner, at this point, I have no answers. But I look forward to engage further with those questions in mind during my time in Jordan. And I hope that, while sharing, I can foster those discussions elsewhere too.
Posted By Teresa Perosa (Jordan)
Posted Jun 18th, 2018