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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 10:58 GMT
Iraqi exiles in deportation fear
By Jon Leyne
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Iraqis are living in fear of deportation from Jordan as it struggles with a massive influx of refugees.

Iraqi exiles queuing outside UNHCR building in Amman
For years now Iraqis have been fleeing the violence back home
They talk about the notorious white vans - police vans that patrol the streets of the Jordanian capital, picking up Iraqis who are here illegally, and sending them back home to Iraq and a very uncertain fate.

Like almost everything to do with Iraqi exiles in Jordan, it is the subject of much rumour, and very few hard facts.

So I set out to find the truth for myself.

Nobody knows exactly how many Iraqi exiles, or refugees, there are in Jordan. It could be anything up to a million.

With similar numbers in neighbouring Syria, it is the largest refugee exodus in the Middle East for half a century - one of the biggest flows of refugees anywhere since the World War II.

But it is an invisible exodus. There are no refugee camps. Unless you know where to look, you will not spot crowds of Iraqis in Jordan.

This small country, sandwiched in the middle of this troubled region, has taken in the Iraqis largely without complaint.

It is a huge burden for a country of barely five million people.

Jordan has earned widespread praise. The rest of the world has given virtually no help at all.

Now, four years after the American-led invasion of Iraq and with no sign of peace being restored, the strain is beginning to show.

Daily struggle

Officially, most Iraqis in Jordan are illegal immigrants who have overstayed their residency.

Adil and his family
Life is tough for Adil, Suham and their sons as exiles in Jordan
They are not given work permits. Sending their children to school is difficult. Healthcare is patchy.

Just surviving is getting more and more difficult as life savings are drained.

Adil and his family used to be successful professionals in Iraq.

Adil worked as an interpreter for the British army in Basra. His wife Suham is an engineer who worked for foreign charities in Iraq.

They fled a few months ago after receiving death threats.

Now they survive in a squalid flat down a dark alley in downtown Amman.

Suham described the nice house they used to live in, in Iraq, with its smart furniture, the car she used to drive.

They took him back to Iraq. I don't know if he is alive or dead
Fahad, Iraqi refugee

And she apologised that she could not even afford to give us a slice of cake with the coffee she kindly brought out, as she would have done in Iraq.

Their son Fahad cannot complete his studies. He sits at home watching television or playing video games.

Even going out of the house he said he has to be careful in case he is picked up by the police and sent back to Iraq.

"That's my biggest fear," he told me. "I can't be out late, because the police will take me to Iraq.

"My friend Alaa is a painter. He was stopped by the police and asked for his ID. Because he didn't have any, they took him to the Amman police centre, then after a week they took him back to Iraq. I don't know if he is dead or alive."

Climate of fear

Jody Miller is an American evangelical pastor who has lived and worked amongst the Iraqis in a poor area of east Amman for years.

Iraqi musicians
Iraqis may have fears but they are still able to enjoy themselves
He described the mood among the Iraqis he meets every day: "They live in daily fear, and it actually results in health issues, because of the constant daily stress that they are under," he said.

And he added: "Everywhere they go they live in fear of being picked up and deported.

"They go to the bus station and see a police van loading Iraqis into the van and they are stricken with fear.

"That word spreads through the whole community and the whole community is in fear.

"And in the short term it does drive some of the Iraqis out. It does have a short term effect of controlling some of the numbers."

Mr Miller described how a young Iraqi friend of his was picked up by the police, and sent back to Iraq at short notice.

He said that in Iraq, his friend was picked up by insurgents, tortured with a drill, and killed.

I've seen the bus. The Iraqis are chained together in pairs. It's obvious what is going on
Taxi driver

Through an Iraqi friend of mine in Amman I was introduced to a taxi driver, who regularly drives between Amman and Baghdad.

He said he has seen for himself a Jordanian police bus that comes to the border every Wednesday, expelling Iraqis back into Iraq.

Sometimes there are only five Iraqis on board, sometimes up to 40.

"I've seen the bus," the taxi driver told me. "There are security men on board. The Iraqis are chained together in pairs. It's obvious what is going on."

There may not be huge numbers of Iraqis being expelled, but the fear is widespread.

The Jordanian government denies there is a policy of deportations.

Safe haven

Prince Hassan of Jordan
You always say these are temporary conditions. But how temporary is temporary?
Prince Hassan of Jordan
This is a country shaped, indeed traumatised over the decades, by successive waves of Palestinian refugees.

Jordan is proud of its reputation as a safe haven but it is very wary of another permanent influx of hundreds of thousands of new refugees.

Jordan's elder statesman, Prince Hassan, put it succinctly: "The concern about any refugee crisis," he explained, "is that you always say these are temporary conditions. But how temporary is temporary?"

Rob Breen is head of the office of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in Jordan.

He detailed Jordan's concerns: "The Jordanian authorities are genuinely and understandably concerned about their own national security.

"Secondly, there are serious concerns for the social fabric of the country.

"To have another 15% of the population remain here on a permanent basis is not acceptable, and would not be acceptable for any state."

Mixed messages

Jordan continues to send mixed signals to its Iraqi guests, welcoming them sometimes, but ensuring the welcome is not too warm.

Iraqi refugees living in Jordan smoke water pipes at a cafe frequented by Iraqis in Amman
Most Iraqis remain grateful for the safe haven they have been given
The world sends even more mixed messages.

While the United States spends billions of dollars a month on the war in Iraq, the UNHCR budget for the refugee issue for the whole region is only $60m this year - and that is more than twice what it was last year.

Washington has just announced it will accept 7,000 Iraqis for resettlement - up from the few hundred accepted since 2003 - but still a tiny fraction of the total.

Britain takes in virtually none.

To date, it has suited Jordan and its allies to play down the problem.

The refugee exodus has gone remarkably smoothly, a tribute to Jordanian hospitality.

Most Iraqis, despite their problems, are deeply grateful for the safe haven they have received in Jordan.

And with no end in sight to the crisis, the Iraqi exiles, refugees really, will probably be making their home here for some time to come.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday 15 March 2007 at 1204 GMT.

The programme will be repeated on Sunday, 19 March at 2030 GMT.

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