Jordan may be quiet and peaceful on the surface -- but Jordanians are uneasy about the unpredictable consequences of a war with Iraq.
Jordan borders Iraq and will be impacted by a conflict in Iraq, but the conflict is not likely to cause a huge refugee outflow to Jordan. UN and government planners and NGOs predict an influx of about 35,000 refugees from war in Iraq, plus about 60,000 third-country-nationals, mostly Egyptians, now working in Iraq who might choose or be forced to return home as a result of the war. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will deal with refugees; the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will arrange transit and transportation for the third-country nationals leaving Iraq.
These predictions might be too optimistic if the war is prolonged or the use of weapons of mass destruction causes a panic-stricken Iraqi population to flee for the nearest border. Several problems are still unresolved. Two potential refugee camps have been designated about 70 kilometers inside Jordan near the highway between Baghdad and Amman. Supplying water to refugees in these locations will be the biggest challenge as the camps are located in a waterless desert. The government has drilled wells, but the well water is salty and thus will have to be desalinated or water will have to be trucked into the refugee camps -- an expensive undertaking in either case.
Access to the border of Iraq and protection of potential refugees are matters of concern. It appears that the Jordanian government and possibly U.S./British military forces inside Iraq may screen potential Iraqi refugees before permitting them entry to Jordan. Refugee and humanitarian agencies need to be present at the border to ensure that refugees are received and screened in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Jordan is also a staging area for humanitarian goods that would be needed in Iraq to sustain a war-impacted and displaced Iraqi population. Although officials are closed-mouthed about the stockpiling of food and other materials, a substantial amount of food -- perhaps enough for one million people for one month -- is now being collected in warehouses in the port of Aqaba for use in Iraq if needed. However, there are questions about the humanitarian priorities in Iraq. Food, for example, may not be the major immediate need of the Iraqi population. Maintaining public order, providing clean water, and restoring electric power and other utilities may be more immediate needs. Refugees International, in the next few days, plans to report in more detail on what we foresee as the potential humanitarian problems that may afflict the Iraqi civilian population as a result of war.
Planning for refugees in Jordan and cross-border humanitarian aid in Iraq are hindered by the unwillingness of funding agencies to provide major resources in advance of a crisis. Funding for the UN and non-governmental organizations by major donors, the U.S. and the European Union, has been relatively small, although the donors have promised that when the war begins the funding will be immediately available. Jordanian authorities, including H.M Queen Rania, have expressed serious concerns about the lack of secured funding for Iraqi refugees. The operations of many international and national non-governmental organizations are now limited because of lack of funds.
After the 1991 Gulf war, Jordan bore the brunt of the cost of hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the border from Iraq -- a burden which the government is attempting to avoid this time in an economy that is already feeling the impact of a potential war. Were it not for an influx of humanitarian agencies, Jordanian hotels would be empty due to a lack of business and tourist travel. Meanwhile, the number of experienced international NGOs in Jordan grows daily as humanitarian organizations gather in the Middle East to prepare for the humanitarian consequences of a war in Iraq. An agreement between Jordan and the UNHCR to cover the costs of a refugee influx is still under negotiation.
Jordanians are concerned about a possible outbreak of terrorism as a result of the war. Jordan has a population of 1.7 million Palestinians. Undoubtedly, terrorist cells exist and might be activated during a conflict with Iraq. One U.S. aid official was recently assassinated and other attempts on foreigners are likely.
Jordanians are also greatly concerned about possible Israeli action against Palestinians on the West Bank. They fear that the Sharon government may use a conflict with Iraq as a pretext to expel Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan. Expulsions of Palestinians could cause not only a political problem between Israel and Jordan but also unrest among Jordan's Palestinian community. Some Jordanians think that Palestinians on the West Bank would simply refuse to be expelled from their homeland -- even at the point of an Israeli gun. This situation is not helped by the shortage of resources of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
- Donors ensure that UNHCR and other aid agencies have adequate funds to prepare for a refugee influx into Jordan. Funds for contingency planning are needed now. National and international NGOs also need funding by donors to prepare.
- Humanitarian organizations, especially UNHCR, be granted access by the government to the Jordan/Iraq border in the event of a conflict to assist in registering, screening, and protecting Iraqi refugees seeking safety in Jordan. This action would be in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, although Jordan is not a signatory to the Convention.
- Donors pledge additional contributions to UNRWA. UNRWA's programs are now severely restricted by shortages of funds, and the budget crunch will get worse if donors do not come forward with additional contributions.