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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Yemenis join the line of refugees seeking help in Jordan

Amman has become a hub for those fleeing the region's conflicts

A general view of the centre of Amman from the city's citadel. EPA Photo
A general view of the centre of Amman from the city's citadel. EPA Photo

Three years after she said goodbye to her family villa in Yemen, and moved to Jordan, Balqees Mohammed is filled with frustration.

She remembers her rooftop terrace, the family's garden of lemon trees and the house's arched windows overlooking the old city of Sanaa.

Now she spends her mornings scrubbing the floors of other people's homes on the west side of Amman.

As she mops balconies and sponges down sand-caked windows, her past life seems almost unimaginable.

Balqees works two cleaning shifts a day, despite chronic back pain she developed one year into her stay in Jordan.

The work earns her around 250 Jordanian Dinars ($350) a month, just enough to cover her rent, of 220 JD.

The 34-year-old spends most of her nights deciding which handful of groceries would best feed her two children; an eggplant today, five tomatoes tomorrow, three eggs the next. Once a week, she allows herself what is now considered an extravagance: a chicken.

There is one group more than others that she blames for her current life: the international community.

"I thought that the UN would provide us with refuge, housing and assistance because we are escaping war," said Balqees, who did not wish use her real name as she works illegally.

Having long been home to Palestinian refugees, Jordan has for years been taking in Iraqis, Sudanese and Syrians. Yemenis, also seeking refuge from conflict, feel like they are the last in a long line of those needing help in Jordan.

"The truth is, while our country is being torn apart, we are abandoned. There is no help, and no sympathy," Balqees added.

Caught between a war-torn homeland and an overburdened host country, Yemenis in Jordan say they have been exiled to "the right place at the wrong time".

With the war in Syria still raging and the absorption of 1.2 million Syrians, donor fatigue in the West and budget crises afflicting several UN agencies are onerous.

For years, Yemenis have worked, studied and sought medical care in Jordan's capital. The city carries a few signs of their presence: a pair of Yemeni restaurants have opened to cater for those arriving.

The signs at a Yemeni restaurant and cafe in Amman reads: "Happy Yemen gate restaurant, happy Yemen gate cafeteria and Old Sanaa restaurant". The National 
The signs at a Yemeni restaurant and cafe in Amman reads: "Happy Yemen gate restaurant, happy Yemen gate cafeteria and Old Sanaa restaurant". The National 

When war broke out in Yemen in 2015, many students and patients opted to stay in Jordan, while for those who gathered their live-savings to leave found there was only two countries reachable by plane that were accepting Yemenis without a visa: Jordan and Egypt.

As the war stretches on and their savings dwindled, Yemenis started to register as refugees with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with the hope of receiving aid and, should the conflict endure, resettlement to a third country.

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Read more:

UN says refugee crisis hits 'five year high'

UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces largest 'structural crisis' in its 70-year history

UN envoy Martin Griffiths resumes Yemen peace efforts with visit to Sanaa

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According to the UN agency, as of August there were 12,500 Yemenis registered – the third largest such community in Jordan.

Yemeni and Jordanian community leaders, however, say the number of unregistered Yemenis is just as high and that the real number is more likely 25,000.

The signs of a toughening environment are ominous. Recently, Jordanian authorities reportedly stopped renewing Yemenis’ temporary residencies. As of November, most Yemeni refugees in the kingdom will be staying on expired visas, accumulating a fine of JD1.5 for each day they overstay.

The UNHCR meanwhile had a 60 per cent budget deficit as of August and recently warned that in November it will scale back and suspend cash assistance and health services to more than 500,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees unless it receives $270 million in urgent funds.

Non-UN relief organisations are faring little better.

Since 2013, many international agencies in Jordan have restricted their aid and services to only Syrian refugees. Such conditions stipulated by their donors leaves Yemenis, as well as the Iraqis and Sudanese also in Jordan out in the cold.

"We wait in the back of the line behind Syrians, and when it is finally our turn and we say are Yemenis, they point to the door," said Ahmed Ali, 35-year-old former banker who left Sanaa for Amman three years ago.

"I don't want to say we are jealous of Syrians or that we wish them ill. It just makes us question: why are we always ignored?"

A Yemeni pro-government fighter fires a machinegun on the frontline of Kirsh between the province of Taez and Lahj, southwestern Yemen, on July 1, 2018. AFP Photo
A Yemeni pro-government fighter fires a machinegun on the frontline of Kirsh between the province of Taez and Lahj, southwestern Yemen, on July 1, 2018. AFP Photo

Yemenis, and other non-Syrian refugees are only allowed to access one charitable health centre in East Amman, many arriving at dawn and waiting up to seven hours to see a nurse.

With international organisations facing funding shortages and greater pressure to shift their aid efforts into Syrian territory, what little aid is afforded to Yemenis – winter assistance from the UN and social programmes from NGOs – may not be there in a few months.

With no cash payments, Yemenis trying to make ends meet in the most expensive Arab capital eke out a living.

But work permits are few and costly. Only a few sectors are open to Yemeni nationals, including bakeries, restaurants, some specialty shops, and factories. Even then, Yemenis require a Jordanian sponsor and must pay up to JD500 annually for work permits, which can equate to several months' wages.

"We don't want aid, we don't want cash handouts, we don't want to rely on the UN – we just want to be able to work," said Hisham. "Give us a chance and we will be productive."

Refugee employment has become a sensitive political issue in Jordan, which faces its own economic crisis. Unemployment is at 18.7 per cent nationwide, over 30 per cent among Jordanian youth. Economic discontent spurred major protests three months ago.

As part of the Jordan Compact agreement, the kingdom has agreed to issue 200,000 work permits to Syrians in return for open access for Jordanian goods to the EU market free customs and taxes.

As of July, Jordanian authorities said 100,000 such permits had been issued.

Refugee children skate on February 24, 2018 at the "7Hills Skate Park" in Amman. AFP Photo
Refugee children skate on February 24, 2018 at the "7Hills Skate Park" in Amman. AFP Photo

Many officials in Amman believe allowing more refugees work permits at a time nearly a third of Jordanians under the age of 35 are searching for a job would be a politically risky move.

Yemenis counter that they are willing to take jobs few Jordanians work in, such as buildings' maintenance and security, street cleaners and gas station attendants.

"I have a degree in law and I am desperate to mop floors and pick up trash," said Hisham, a 45-year-old father of two who was one of the first Yemenis to register as a refugee in July 2015. "But each time they turn me away and deny my permit."

Schooling is also an issue.

While there are several UN and NGO programmes assisting the integration of more than 120,000 Syrian children in government schools, no such framework exists for Yemenis.

Some Yemeni children have been scheduled for afternoon classes with Syrian students, while others showing up to start the new school year this week have reportedly been turned away by school administrators.

"The biggest thing we are afraid of is our children's future," said Mr Ali, the banker. "Once your developmental years go by, you can never get them back."