How Do You Rank Refugees?

In Jordan, aid workers wrestle with a deeply troubling question: What makes an asylum seeker from Syria needier than one from Sudan?
Abdelmagid Adam, who suffered brain damage from being beaten on the head by Sudanese police, arrived in Jordan from Darfur two months ago. The leaky ceilings in his apartment have him worried about his children and pregnant wife. (Alice Su)

AMMAN, Jordan — A poster of King Abdullah II hangs, lopsided, on a peeling white wall over 34 Sudanese men crouched on the floor. Their eyes turn to Mohamedain Suliman as he enters, one hand touching his black beret in greeting.

Ahlan wa sahlan. One man steps forward to welcome the 55-year-old, Darfur-born Suliman, who commands respect as the unofficial Sudanese liaison for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the oldest man in the room. The apartment is crammed in an alleyway halfway up a hill over downtown Amman. Drafts of wind gust through the unit as the sun sets, turning the rust-stained walls a dull grey.

Over the next hour, the electricity flickers out three times. Latecomers crowd on the floor, some kneeling, others hugging stick-thin shins to their chests. One man leads a tour, displaying features of the three rooms where all 34 sleep: an empty refrigerator, a worn Oxford Arabic-English dictionary, a wriggling cockroach picked off the wall.

Then Kareem, the group’s appointed leader, begins the conversation. “There were very bad things in Darfur,” he says quietly, sitting straight-backed on a stool above the rest. “They rape sisters and kill brothers. So we came to Jordan, but there is no support here. That’s why we are under this one roof.”

The men have all come from Darfur—the newest to arrive just two days ago, the oldest two years earlier—where they lived in refugee camps. All are fleeing ongoing violence between Sudan’s government and militias. All have seen family members die. None have work permits or aid. All laugh out loud when asked if they have Jordanian friends.

“Sometimes Jordanians throw rocks at us. They call us ‘chocolate’ and other names,” says Kareem, smiling. The Jordanian king’s poster was there when they came, he notes. Nobody bothered to move it.

A Sudanese asylum seeker from Darfur sits in an apartment he shares with 33 other men. (Alice Su)

These are the Sudanese refugees of Amman, one of several little-known populations seeking asylum in Jordan alongside more than half a million Syrians. These “other refugees” include 450,000 Iraqis and roughly 1,000 non-Iraqis, mostly Somalis and Sudanese. UNHCR, the UN-mandated leader and coordinator of some 25 refugee organizations in Jordan, assists about 40 percent of these refugees. The rest cannot work legally and receive no aid, even as Jordanian institutions buckle and prices soar under the flood of incoming Syrians.

These “other refugees” often complain about discrimination as they watch aid agencies help Syrians while they are refused or delayed assistance, despite also having fled death and persecution. All Syrians can get immediate refugee status upon arrival in Jordan. Others wait indefinitely as asylum seekers, pending recognition as refugees, which still does not guarantee aid. Aid providers say they can’t help it—“persons of concern” (refugees and asylum seekers) only receive support so long as donors and international media decide that they are sufficiently desperate. Once global interest in their crises runs out, so does funding. A hungry child from Darfur gets as much “concern” as one from Aleppo, but not the same access to blankets, water, and food.

Without financial help or permission to work, the Sudanese fend for themselves through community ties. “We treat each other well,” says 22 year-old Idriss, who has been in Amman for four months. “When we see a brother on the street we say, ‘Come to us. Take your bag and come.’”

Located a 10 minutes’ walk from Rainbow Street—a hub of trendy bars, burger joints, and neon-lit shisha cafes—the Darfur refugees’ apartment costs $560 for rent each month. No Sudanese can work legally, but several find illicit cleaning or construction jobs two or three days a week, and money is pooled for rent and food. Two people cook daily on a rotational basis, and they eat only beans or lentils. It’s enough, as long as no one gets sick.

“It’s like living in a refugee camp without the aid,” Idriss says. Many are afraid of being deported back to Sudan. “If police see you working, they will arrest you. We have to watch out,” he adds.

Technically, the UNHCR guarantees refugees protection from deportation. But refugee status is hard to obtain. Everyone undergoes the same procedure when they enter Jordan: Make an appointment to register with UNHCR. Register as an asylum seeker. Go through interviews and home visits to determine if you meet refugee criteria—specifically that you’ve fled your country and cannot return due to a “well-founded fear” of persecution for race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Those who pass this process receive aid, protection, and the possibility of resettlement in countries like Sweden or the United States. Those who are rejected can appeal for reconsideration, but otherwise no longer qualify as “persons of concern.”

Many Sudanese in Jordan wait three months just to get their first appointment with UNHCR. As asylum seekers, they can then wait for years before their refugee status is determined, with no means to work and no aid in the meantime.

Many Sudanese in Jordan live in overcrowded, trash-filled alleys, hidden halfway up the hills that demarcate different areas of West Amman. (Alice Su)

Syrians, meanwhile, speed through or skip through this process, receiving refugee status and help immediately because they have been declared prima facie refugees—members of a mass influx from generalized violence for which UNHCR doesn’t need or have the capacity to conduct individual evaluations. Other relief organizations have similar rules, but are more often restricted by their dependence on fundraising appeals, which usually focus on one crisis at a time. NGOs can’t take money from their “Feed a Syrian Family This Christmas” campaign and feed a Somali family instead.

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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