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?
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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.

“They say there’s no discrimination or racism. But if you ask me, ‘What is your nationality?’ And then decide whether you’ll help me, then you are discriminating,” says Mohamedain, who informally represents the Sudanese community before UNHCR in Amman. He registered as an asylum seeker in 2003 and received refugee status in 2006, which gave him aid for the first time ($140 per person per month, or $350 for a family). In 2008, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) promised Mohamedain resettlement in the United States. Five years later, he’s still waiting, sustaining a wife and five children on the $350 of monthly aid each month plus another $350 he earns as a Jordanian family’s private driver.

“It’s not discrimination,” says UNHCR senior protection officer Giulia Ricciarelli in an interview. Operations differ for each refugee population based on their context, she explains, because the scale and needs are different. When mass crises happen, UNHCR issues protection consideration papers (PCCs) recognizing certain populations as particularly desperate. They then get help quicker by virtue of nationality. “We issued a PCC for Sudan at the time of the Darfur crisis,” Ricciarelli says. “Same for Somalia. Now we have one for Syria.”

When crises die down and receive less international attention, refugee populations are relegated to the individual interview process. Iraqis, for example, had prima facie status in Jordan from 2007 until September 2012, when this recognition was lifted to redirect capacity toward Syrians.

“The funds are decreasing for Iraqis and non-Iraqis because the needs of the Syrians are currently greater,” Ricciarelli says. “All those funds are earmarked for the Syria response and cannot be diverted to use for non-Syrians. It’s also dependent on donors’ and agencies’ interest. We appeal for funds for all our operations, but we have budgets dedicated to the Syria response and budgets for all the others.”

UNHCR is funded mostly by government donors, of which the top three are the United States (33 percent), Japan (11 percent), and the European Union (6 percent). Five percent of its funds are from the private sector—largely individuals who give regular monthly contributions. In Jordan, UNHCR appealed for $151 million in 2012 and received $86 million, enough to cover 57 percent of its needs.

In the absence of media and donor focus, the burden falls on refugees to prove their own need. During the UNHCR interview, an asylum seeker from Darfur might be asked to name three hospitals, streets, and schools from his neighborhood to prove his origin. Someone from a lesser-known conflict area like South Kordofan—where violence is not severe enough to be considered all-encompassing, like in Darfur—would simply tell his story, then let UNHCR staff decide if he was telling the truth or not. Asylum seekers from such places have to prove that their lives are specifically threatened, not just that they come from a war zone.

Mohamedain Suliman's passport includes pictures of his five children, all of whom grew up as refugees in Jordan. He is awaiting promised resettlement in the U.S. (Alice Su) 

“It depends what your story is about,” Ricciarelli says, adding that UNHCR staff rely on “well-known country information” and are trained in establishing credibility and material facts. “It’s difficult to tell you what [applicants] have to prove. Every determination is individual, depending on individual facts of their story.”

Verification is stringent because refugees sometimes lie, according to one source at a Jordanian NGO that provides legal assistance for those who can’t afford it, refugees included. Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqis, and Syrians alike will use fake papers or fabricated stories to acquire help, says the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

These problems often arise with economic migrants who move to seek better lives, not because someone might kill them. They abuse the system by taking real refugees’ spots, she says. “Some of them are sabotaging the others, which means the system must become tougher. Otherwise it would be a mess, random, not based on proper facts.”

Humanitarian workers also rank refugees simply because funds are limited. “What we lack is funding. It’s not UNHCR’s or anyone’s fault,” the NGO source says. “Big donors collect money, but there’s a volcano here, a tsunami there—some conflicts just don’t reach a large enough scale.”

All this makes sense from an international perspective. But it is hard to explain to an individual like Abdelmagid Adam, who came to Amman from Sudan two months ago, fleeing police violence with his pregnant wife and four children. He has X-ray records from a hospital showing the brain damage from police beating him on the head. “I couldn’t speak for months,” Abdelmagid says. Three months ahead of his wife's due date, the family lives with no income in two rooms with moist air and leaking ceilings.

“Logic doesn’t work with refugees. They are in the fire,” the NGO source says. “Would anything make sense if you were burning or drowning? You’d think, ‘You see me dying, and you’re reasoning with me? Just help me. Pull me to safety.’”

Tensions are rising these days as Jordan approaches its coldest winter in 100 years, with temperatures expected to plunge lower than last year’s record of 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Abdelmagid cannot access the winterization kits of blankets, heaters, and clothing that agencies are giving to Syrians and other recognized refugees in the country. Talk of donor priority means nothing to him. His wife is giving birth in three months. His 1-year-old daughter is hungry and cold.

“Winter is very harsh on people,” the NGO source says. It breeds resentment, she explains, when one group sees another receiving help while they are seemingly denied arbitrarily. “Peaceful coexistence, the only thing we have in Jordan, is weakened,” the source adds.

One way to ensure coverage of Sudanese, Somali, and other marginalized refugees would be to require that a percentage quota of aid be given to all asylum-seeking nationalities in a given country. “If each organization gave 10 percent from their projects to Somalis and Sudanese, they’d be fine,” the NGO source says. But Jordan’s government has already faced a backlash from international donors for pushing them to spend at least 30 percent of their funding on Jordanian host communities, which are struggling to support the influx of Syrian refugees. Suggesting that funds to deal with the crisis be diverted even further would be difficult.

Donors might pull out from Jordan in response to more restrictions, the NGO source says. An aid quota policy for other refugees would have to be driven by aid agencies or donors themselves, not the government. “Or else Jordan will say, ‘I opened my borders and the donors left. Now the refugees will eat me alive,’” she adds.

Sudanese refugees have varying answers when asked what they want: Non-discrimination. Recognition. Survival. Education. Resettlement. Back in the apartment, one man has been huddled by the door all night, clutching a bed sheet over his shoulders and head. He looks up and speaks for the first time, blinking: “I just want to go somewhere safe.” His voice is soft. “I want a safe place for home.”

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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