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Gazan refugees denied rights in Jordan for over 45 years

by Aaron Magid Friday, Sep. 18, 2015 at 10:52 PM

Aaron Magid is an Amman-based journalist. He graduated from Harvard University with a masters in Middle Eastern studies. His articles have appeared in Al-Monitor, the New Republic, and the Daily Star (Lebanon). JERASH REF

JERASH REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (Ma'an) -- Born in Jordan, 27-year-old Muhammad’s life hardly resembles a typical Jordanian's. Lacking any political or civil rights, Muhammad explained that he is forbidden from working in most jobs, even a teacher at a public school. Muhammad faces these rigorous restrictions because his parents fled to Jordan from Gaza following the 1967 War.

“Compared to other Jordanian citizens, I am nothing,” explained Muhammad, who declined to provide his last name. Sadly, Muhammad’s predicament is not unique. Approximately 140,000 Palestinian refugees from Gaza live in a similar limbo as Muhammad in Jordan: denied most rights and often forced into a life of harsh poverty.

Nearly 2.1 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, 350,000 Palestinians fled to Jordan with the majority moving to the West Bank, then controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom. The Nationality Law of 1954 provided Palestinian residents of the West Bank with full Jordanian citizenship after King Abdullah I annexed the West Bank on April 24, 1950. However, when the new wave of Palestinian refugees arrived in Jordan escaping from Gaza in the 1967 War, Amman treated them differently than their West Bank countrymen, refusing to provide them with Jordanian nationality or civil rights.

One of the most burdensome challenges facing Palestinian refugees from Gaza is the constraint on participating in the labor market. Gazan refugees are forbidden from working as doctors, engineers or lawyers. They are not permitted to work anywhere in the public sector, a major source of employment in Jordan. Therefore, Gazan refugees are forced to seek employment in the informal labor sector causing severe economic challenges.

“Their participation in the political and socio-economic life is very limited,” said Anwar Abu-Sakieneh, an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) official, in an interview from her office in Amman. “They feel marginalized, inactive and that they are excluded.”

According to an extensive report sponsored by the European Commission and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palestinian refugees from Gaza are three times more likely to suffer from dire poverty living on less than .25 per day.

In addition to the economic restrictions, refugees from Gaza enjoy no political rights. Unlike Palestinian refugees from the West Bank in 1948, 1967 refugees from Gaza cannot vote in Jordanian elections or serve in the parliament. Gazan refugees are provided with a two-year temporary passport, without a national number.

Even routine bureaucratic matters are cumbersome for this population. Odeh Hussein -- Chairman of the Jerash Camp Committee and a Palestinian refugee himself born in Rafah, Gaza -- highlighted the contrasting costs for a local drivers license. While Odeh noted that drivers licenses cost for Jordanian citizens, Gazans are required to pay0for the same service, four times the price.

Odeh also noted that university costs are significantly more expensive for Palestinian refugees from Gaza, as they are considered foreigners. This prevents many the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Jordanian leaders consistently express their verbal support for the Palestinian cause. After meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdalllah in June of 2015, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour described the “brotherly and close ties” between Palestinians and Jordanians.

The situation is especially bleak in the Jerash Refugee Camp, 48 kilometers north of the capital Amman. The camp is almost entirely comprised of Palestinian refugees from Gaza with only six percent of inhabitants holding Jordanian citizenship. “By all accounts Jerash Camp is considered one of the poorest and most neglected Palestinian camps in Jordan,” noted Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch researcher based in Amman,

When visiting the camp on a blistering hot afternoon, there was garbage spread across the narrow and unpaved roads. Groups of children sprinkled throughout the camp were sitting idly on the street with families living in tight corridors.

While Jerash Camp was established after the 1967 War for 11,500 Palestinians who fled Gaza, 48 years later the camps physical size has remained the same despite the population doubling to 24,000 residents. Eighty-eight percent of residents in the Jerash camp carry no health insurance, and the average household size in Jerash of 5.8 is larger than any other Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.

“When this camp was established in 1967, many believed it would be kept for at most five years,” explained Odeh. “They thought the Palestinian issue would be solved.”

Residents repeatedly complained of overcrowdedness inside the camp resulting in a lack of privacy. “Everyone is besides each other,” sighed 24-year old Muhammad. “What separates your shelter from your neighbors is a single wall with the thickness of 10 centimeters so you can hear them and even smell their cooking.”

If the conditions are so challenging inside the Jerash Refugee Camp and residents are legally permitted to leave, why do 24,000 Palestinians choose to stay?

Mahmoud noted that rent is significantly cheaper inside the camp with some families only paying per month. If he were to leave to Amman, he would pay 0 per month on rent, about ten times the price. Given the immense difficulties for refugees to find a reasonable paying job due to the countless work restrictions imposed upon them by the Jordanian government, few Palestinian refugees from Gaza can afford the higher prices outside of the camp.

In recent years, the Jordanian government has taken some steps to improve the situation for the Palestinian refugees from Gaza.

In 2007, the Cabinet granted free health care for Gazan refugees under the age of six. They are now permitted to apply for exemptions from the Royal Court for cancer treatment and dialysis. However, the troublesome poverty rates and restrictions from working in many middle class labor sectors demonstrates that the government still has significant room for improvement.

Human Rights Watch researcher Coogle advised, “Given the special history and circumstances for these refugees, and the fact that they cannot return to their places of origin, Jordan should consider granting exceptions that would allow them to work in protected employment sectors.”

Coogle also recommended that the government reduce university tuition fees, since Gazans must pay a significantly higher rate than Jordanian citizens.

Jordan’s poor treatment of Gazans is not unique in the country’s overall policy towards Palestinian refugees. In January, 2013, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour admitted that the Hashemite Kingdom bars entry of Palestinian refugees fleeing from the bloody ongoing conflict in Syria.

Ensour told the Arabic language daily based in London Al-Hayat, “Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision to not allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents. They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”

When asked how he would improve the situation facing Palestinian refugees from Gaza, Odeh urged the government “to treat Gazan refugees in the camp as Jordanian citizens in all aspects: work, health and education.”

Despite repeated requests, the Jordanian government’s Department of Palestinian Affairs declined to comment.

Jordanian leaders have consistently called on Palestinians to end the division between the West Bank and Gaza in terms of the ongoing Fatah-Hamas feud. Therefore, it is ironic that Amman is the one deepening the split among Palestinians by treating Gazan refugees in Jordan far worse than Palestinian refugees from the West Bank.

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