The Refugee Crisis That Wasn't

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After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi refugees began trickling into neighboring countries, particularly Jordan. By 2007, the United Nations was estimating that there were 750,000 Iraqis living in Jordan—the equivalent of more than 10 percent of Jordan’s population—and some thought even that number was too low. In the United States, Democrats seized on the influx as an indictment of the Bush administration’s entire gambit in Iraq. U.S. aid poured in, but much of it has helped poor Jordanians rather than displaced Iraqis. This isn’t your typical case of aid gone awry, writes Nicholas Seeley, editor of JO, an English-language magazine based in Amman. It turns out that there weren’t so many Iraqis who needed help.

Before 2007, in its dealings with international donors, Jordan generally downplayed the number of Iraqis arriving in its cities. King Abdullah II’s desert nation was reluctant to provide assistance, worried that the “guests” would get too comfortable and never return to Iraq. In April 2007—perhaps because of international pressure to address the situation—Jordan changed its tune and began arguing that it needed help to deal with a refugee population it claimed was costing the country $1 billion a year. The international community directed nearly $400 million in aid to Jordan to help with the influx of Iraqi refugees from 2007 to 2009.
But evidence has emerged to indicate that the number of Iraqi refugees was nowhere near 750,000. A Norwegian research organization, Fafo, worked with Jordan’s Department of Statistics and found that, by one statistical measure, the true number might be as low as 161,000, though Fafo cautioned that some Iraqis may not have identified themselves for fear of deportation.
The United Nations’ Refugee Agency has never registered many more than 65,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan. When Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi children in 2007, officials expected some 50,000 students to enroll, but only 12,000 have, and leaks from the Ministry of Education indicate that even that figure may be inflated. Despite the mounting evidence, Jordanian officials continue to claim that there are more than 500,000 displaced Iraqis within their borders, arguing that other data (such as cell phone registrations) support this higher estimate.
Because Iraqi refugees settled among poor Jordanians, some aid programs stipulated that 25 to 50 percent of the beneficiaries be Jordanian, but it seems likely that a lot more Jordanians than that have been reaping the benefits of American efforts to mitigate the damage caused by the war in Iraq.
Photo credit: Amman, Jordan by premasagar via flickr

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