Jordan: Palestinian refugees struggle amid UNRWA funding cuts

Elderly Palestinian women in Jordan’s Al-Akaba refugee camp, near Amman (Reuters).jpg

Hanna Davis

Al-Jazeera  /  December 18, 2021

Descendants of Palestinian refugees from Gaza live in Jordan without citizenship or rights, relying on UN refugee agency.

Amman, Jordan – Inside Jordan, Ali is a foreigner from the Gaza Strip. But outside, he is regarded as a Jordanian.

“How?” the 35-year-old asks. “I’m stuck in between; not here, nor there.”

Although he was born and raised in Jordan, Ali does not have Jordanian citizenship. His ID says he is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, courtesy of his grandfather who fled the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The small, plastic card is the only remaining indicator that Ali is a “foreigner” – a label that restricts almost every aspect of his life, from his job, to the car he drives, to the nationality of his children. He studied electrical engineering but, unable to get a job in the field, he works for a medical lab in Amman conducting COVID-19 tests. He says he cannot vote, pays more than four times the amount for his driver’s license and passport fees, and must undergo a lengthy, security approval process before he can buy an apartment.

“Life goes on,” the father of two told Al Jazeera. “But, you spend your whole life searching for another nationality, for a better one. For your kids. I don’t want my kids to live in the same situation I live.”

“If you think I’m Jordanian, give me the full citizenship,” he said. “If you think I’m Palestinian, get me back to Palestine.”

‘Chronic underfunding’

When the West Bank was put under the administrative control of Jordan in 1950, its residents were entitled to Jordanian citizenship. This excluded Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, who lived under the Egyptian domain, said Jawad al-Anani, a former Jordanian labour minister, told Al-Jazeera. During the 1967 war, those fleeing the Israeli-occupied West Bank were residents of Jordan, while those fleeing the Gaza Strip were not. When Jordan cut administrative ties with the West Bank in 1988, those originally from the West Bank living in Jordan’s pre-1950 lands maintained full citizenship rights, while those from Gaza remained foreigners, said al-Anani.

For these Palestinian refugees without citizenship in Jordan, including nearly 175,000 forcibly displaced from Gaza in 1967, and 18,000 others who fled Syria’s war-torn regions, public benefits are nearly non-existent, said Widian Othman, Jordan spokeswoman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

This leaves UNRWA – the under-funded, cash-strapped agency – their only support network to turn to. In Jordan, UNRWA runs 161 schools for nearly 120,000 students, 25 health centres and provides food and cash assistance to about 60,000 of the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees, essential for those without Jordanian nationality, said Othman.

A UNRWA donor conference, held in Brussels in mid-November, left the agency with roughly 40 percent of its required funds, said Tamara al-Rifai, UNRWA spokeswoman.

“The chronic underfunding of UNRWA has created immense distress to the agency, to the staff and to the refugee community,” said Al-Rifai. “It has prevented UNRWA from truly being able to upgrade and modernize its services.”

The UN agency provides services for 5.7 million Palestinian refugees – largely descendants of those who were forcibly displaced from their towns, villages and cities in Palestine in 1948 and 1967, and ended up in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

About 40 percent of these refugees live in Jordan, according to UNRWA figures.

“The fact that Palestinian refugees suffer from the oldest unresolved conflict in the region plays against them in that there is donor fatigue and a slow erosion of their plight and their story,” said Al-Rifai.

UNRWA delays salaries, cuts benefits

Last month, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini alerted 28,000 staff that the agency could not pay its November salaries on time.

Nearly 90 percent of UNRWA employees are Palestinian refugees, according to Al-Rifai.

The principal of a UNRWA school in Al-Baqa’a Camp, the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, said teachers are frustrated.

“Everyone has families, bills, loans,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that with the salary delay he struggled to afford petrol for his daily, half-hour commute from Gaza Camp. He spoke on terms of anonymity due to UNRWA’s clause that bans employees from speaking to the media.

The principal noted four of the school’s 28 teachers stopped coming in because they did not receive their salaries. In an overcrowded facility where each class has almost 50 students, such an absence disrupts hundreds of children’s education, he said.

The postponement of salary payments was preceded by three sit-ins and one strike, in November alone, to protest against UNRWA’s failure to adequately pay and provide benefits for current and retired employees, according to a Jordan Labor Watch statement.

“We feel pressure that UNRWA wants to reduce or stop its services,” said Mohanad, a teacher in the Al-Baqa’a Camp school, who preferred to use his first name only.

Although November salaries were eventually paid last week, Mohanad expressed fear that December salaries would be delayed again.

Growing population, shrinking budget

UNRWA is now entering its 72nd year of operation. The tents that once sheltered Palestinian refugees have in time been replaced with rudimentary concrete homes, with the strict land-lease requirements forcing the camp to grow up, not out.

The camps now resemble poor, densely overpopulated cities; a maze of concrete homes to generations of families.

At the severely overcrowded Al-Baqa’a Camp, more than 129,000 refugees live in an area of 1.4 square kilometres (0.54 square miles).

“The number of people is increasing, but the services are decreasing,” said Mohanad.

He noted that UNRWA used to provide school uniforms, books, stationery, a meal and some vitamins for the students – but now these services are no longer offered.

Meanwhile, the overcrowded classrooms and under-resourced staff have left little room for schools to follow any sort of protocols to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no coronavirus here,” Mohanad said, sarcastically.

According to Othman, UNRWA’s spokesperson in Jordan, the financial shortages meant the agency is not able to recruit staff and its operations are being run with less capacity.

Ahmad Hamada al-Bashetee has grown up in what is commonly known as Gaza Camp – the poorest of Jordan’s 10 UNRWA-run Palestinian refugee camps.

“The cleaning services have gotten worse here,” he said. “This is a highly dense area, which needs cleaning services for 24 hours. But the cleaning men only come in the morning.”

Al-Bashetee also noted the extended wait times for the UNRWA-run health centres – services he depends on given the high costs of public health services without the Jordanian nationality.

“There are issues with the health centres,” he said. “As the population has increased, the health centres have remained the same size. There are way too many people.”

Under political attack

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been occupied by Israel for more than 50 years, prolonging the suffering of Palestinian refugees living in squalid conditions in camps in the neighbouring countries.

“UNRWA is under intense politically motivated attacks that seek to question its legitimacy and undermine its added value, in an attempt to weaken the rights of Palestinian refugees,” said Al-Rifai, UNRWA’s spokeswoman.

In 2018, former US President Donald Trump cut the entire United States aid budget to UNRWA. While under the Biden administration aid was resumed, it was offset by the “sharp drop” in funding from a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Gulf states, said Al-Rifai.

Critics of UNRWA say host nations should shoulder the burden of absorbing them.

“It is extremely weird how 50 years later, the people from Gaza are the only Palestinians in Jordan who cannot get the Jordanian nationality,” said Al-Bashetee.

There is fear among Jordanians that if you open up citizenship for Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Jordan will become the “alternative homeland” to Palestine, said Al-Anani, the former labour minister.

Today, roughly half of Jordan’s population are of West Bank-Palestinian origin, noted Al-Anani. However, this is a “crude” estimate, he said, adding that the government does not keep an exact count of those with Palestinian origins.

“UNRWA will continue to provide protection and assistance to Palestinian refugees in the Near East until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight – meaning a political solution that includes them,” said Al-Rifai.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNRWA’s services have been even more critical, considering the camp’s overcrowded conditions, poor infrastructure and rising unemployment rates.

Al-Bashetee has been out of work for more than seven months; his ambiguous legal status presenting extreme difficulties.

“This first thing employers ask me is if I am Jordanian,” he said.

His status as a refugee – despite never setting foot in the Gaza Strip – has also presented obstacles to his personal life and his dream of settling down, including when he wanted to marry a woman he had met at university who had Jordanian citizenship

“When I asked for this woman’s hand in marriage, her family refused me because I am Gazan,” he recalled. “They said: ‘You don’t have citizenship, you don’t have health insurance, so you don’t have means to support our daughter’.”

Hanna Davis is an Amman-based freelance journalist