Hundreds of lost souls still in no man's land
AL KARAMA, Jordan (UNHCR) - They look at you through the fence, with empty, desperate and hopeless eyes. On their right is Iraq, on their left Jordan, and they are in the middle, lost souls in no man's land. Their living space is a one-km-wide stretch of arid land, their home tents covered by UNHCR plastic sheeting.
"This is like being in prison," says Ahmed, an Iranian Kurd who spent more than 20 years in a refugee camp in Iraq. "It was hard in Iraq as we were always controlled in the camp, but here I really feel like I'm in prison. I just feel lost and forgotten. I've spent 20 years in a camp and 10 months here. Will this be my life forever?"
Ahmed is one of the 1,200 people - among them Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis and Sudanese - who have spent the past 10 months in the no man's land between Jordan and Iraq.
When war broke out in Iraq in March 2003, the government of Jordan agreed to provide temporary protection, initially for three months, for all Iraqis fleeing the fighting and instability inside Iraq. Together with the Iraqis, many other people decided to leave the unstable and insecure situation. However, some of them were not allowed to enter Jordan for different reasons: Iranians who previously lived in Iraq's Al Tash refugee camp were refused, others were stopped for security reasons or lacked valid travel documents.
"Jordan has over the years been extremely hospitable to refugees coming out of surrounding countries - to refugees from the 1991 Gulf War, the Palestinian refugees, the Iraqis temporarily leaving the extreme insecure situation in their country," says UNHCR's Representative in Jordan, Sten Bronee.
"With this last group of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, Jordan feels it has reached its limits," he adds. "Despite these constraints, the Jordanian authorities are continuously trying to be as generous and supportive as possible under the circumstances. Several sites were identified to house this remaining group of displaced people, and the local Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation, with help from UNHCR and other organisations, has been taking care of these people in need."
The refugees and displaced people are being taken care of as well as possible, and assistance is provided by various agencies on the ground. There is food, water, kerosene. Warm clothes have been distributed to help withstand the cold nights. Medical care is provided in Ruweished town, or even in the capital Amman, when needed. On an occasional basis shopping trips can be made to buy whatever can be bought with the little money available.
But despite the goodwill of many, life for the refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in this part of Jordan is extremely tough. Kamel Morjane, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, visited the desolate area last week and spoke extensively to the community.
"What is most difficult for these people is their morale," said Morjane, visibly affected by their fate as he held a pile of despairing letters they had given him. "Without hope for the future, living in complete isolation and feeling totally cut off from the outside world, in a no man's land, it is very hard not to become depressed."
Only 60 km away is another site of despair: Ruweished camp, a collection of tents surrounded by the vast Jordanian desert, where fierce sandstorms and icy winter nights make the over 400 refugees living there more miserable then they already are.
"I feel totally lost and isolated here, in the middle of nowhere," says Palestinian Jamal, who used to live in Baghdad. "It is so cold at night that we sleep with our clothes and woollen hats on. I fear the days the sandstorms come because I can hardly breathe."
Jamal is among the many Palestinian refugees living in Iraq for many years who fled the recent war and sought asylum in Jordan. These Palestinians were allowed into Jordan and temporarily housed in Ruweished camp. After several months, in a special gesture by the Jordanian government, 386 Palestinians with Jordanian spouses were allowed to settle in Jordan. However, more than 380 people who were refused entry for different reasons (lack of valid documentation, overstayed welcome) are still in Ruweished, together with some Sudanese and Somali refugees and a handful of others. The last group entered Jordan, claiming they were in transit. Upon arrival, they requested for asylum but did not get it.
"When will there be a solution for us?" asks Enah, a Palestinian woman displaced all her life. "It is hard for us being away from our country for so long. Why do my children have to grow up playing with sand? They should play with computers like other children."
Over the past months, some of the Palestinians who had fled Iraq decided - despite the insecurity - to return there, tired of waiting for a better life beyond the desert isolation.
Others say they cannot go back. "I will never be able to return to Iraq," says Enah. "During Saddam Hussein's regime, the Palestinians were well treated, which created unhappiness among those Iraqis who were not. Now they feel like revenge. Only a few weeks ago my relatives were killed in a bombing in Baghdad. How can I go back? And the Palestinian authority cannot help me either."
"Finding solutions for these people takes a lot of work and advocacy," said Assistant High Commissioner Morjane during his recent visit. "Every individual has a different story and reason to be here, and will need an individual solution. Some Sudanese and Somalis have recently been allowed resettlement to the United States, but unfortunately, this is not the solution for everyone here. An end however, has to come soon to the suffering of these lost people."
Last September, the government of Jordan, through the Ministry of Interior, informed UNHCR of its wish to close the refugee camp in Ruweished and to move the inhabitants to no man's land. Following an appeal by the refugee agency, the camp's life has been extended, but the rugged environment is no place for the refugees to remain forever.
By Astrid van Genderen Stort