Wealthy Iraqi refugees meet wave of resentment in Jordan
Ed O’Loughlin , The Age, November 17, 2007
A relative oasis of stability for much of its short history, Jordan has accommodated several waves of refugees from its more troubled neighbours. But its tolerance is now being tested by a massive influx of Iraqis who have fled across the border since 2003.
Most people in Jordan are descended from refugees or wanderers.
At least 40% of the kingdom’s 6 million people — some say a lot more — are Palestinians who fled the “West Bank” of the Jordan river during wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967.
Most of the rest, the “East Bankers”, are descended from the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Syrian and Arabian deserts, with a sprinkling of Chechens, Circassians and Armenians displaced in the days of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.
Even the ruling family comes from somewhere else. Members of the same ancient clan as the Prophet Mohammed, in 1925 the Hashemi were driven from their Mecca heartland by the rival house of Saud. Today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries on earth named after their rulers.
A relative oasis of stability for much of its short history, Jordan has accommodated several waves of refugees from its more troubled neighbours.
But its tolerance is now being tested by a massive influx of Iraqis who have fled across the border since 2003.
Since the US invasion of Iraq four years ago as many as 1 million people — the semi-official figure is 700,000 — have fled into Jordan, where they are widely accused of trebling property prices, overloading the infrastructure and fuelling inflation — now 6.3%, almost double its rate of four years ago.
“They will use our roads, our health system, our education, our water and our electricity, which is supplied by the Government,” complained Dr Hani Darwish el Khalili, a committee member with the Amman Chamber of Commerce.
“By paying a lot of cash to buy apartments they have driven up property prices. Some people benefited from this, but it harms most of the community, because the younger generation can’t afford to buy a flat.”
Much of the hostility stems from the fact that many of the Iraqis who took refuge in Jordan are — or were — relatively well-off. Most of the poorer ones — more than 1 million in number — sought refuge in Syria, where opportunities are fewer but prices much lower.
A privileged few of those who came to Jordan are closely linked to the US occupation regime in Iraq, and have relocated to Amman for their safety while retaining access to their homeland’s vast oil wealth. Others are former Baathists living off what they plundered in the days of Saddam.
Highly visible in the lobbies of Amman’s booming five-star hotels and in a new wave of boutiques and nightclubs, these deluxe refugees are viewed by some Jordanians as traitors, both to Arab nationalism and to Sunni Islam.
Hostility towards them easily translates into a general dislike of all Iraqis in Jordan, regardless of whether they are wealthy or not.
“I’ll give you an example — if an Iraqi comes to my stall he won’t ask the price, he’ll just start filling his bag,” says Mohammed Ro’ud, a greengrocer in Amman’s Boukari street market. “This is why the prices of flats are also going up: they don’t bargain, they just pay cash right away, and ordinary Jordanians can’t afford to do that.”
Mr Ro’ud says that most Jordanians prefer the poor Iraqi refugees like Adnan Rani, a Shia refugee from Basra who earns a few dinars a day working as a porter in the market.
Formerly the owner and operator of two 20-tonne boats, Mr Rani said he came to Jordan two years ago after the security situation put an end to his fishing business. “Life is difficult here,” he says. “I’ve a family of 16 back in Basra and I try to send them $US100 a month.”
Hussein Agen Hussein, a former major in Saddam’s Republican Guard whose two officer sons were killed in the 2003 invasion, also depends on the market and the surrounding streets for his survival. Now crippled by arthritis, he begs for a living.
“I’m depending for my life on the help of others,” he says. “Some wealthy Iraqis come downtown and give us gifts — some Jordanians too. I live by candlelight.”
Like a minority of Iraqi refugees — usually the poorer are more desperate — the two men have obtained papers from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which identify them as asylum seekers. But the large majority of Iraqis in Jordan exist outside the law, their presence tolerated but closely watched.
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