Palestinian refugees in Jordan stuck in a no man’s land

AMMAN (IPS) - Music enlivens the yellow taxi as it traverses the Jordanian capital. A small Palestinian flag hangs from the rearview mirror. Jihad, the cab driver, says his father fled here from the Palestinian West Bank in 1948, later occupied by Israel in 1967.

“Thank God almighty, life is good for me here and I can offer my family a decent life,” he says. “While my father was Palestinian, I feel today Jordanian and I hold the Jordanian nationality. No distinction is made in this country between Jordanian nationals and those of Palestinian descent.”

According to the records of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), Jordan is home to 1.9 million displaced Palestinians. “Jordan hosts about 42 percent of the total refugee population,” says Mattar Sakr, director of public relations for UNRWA in Jordan.

Sakr adds that most refugees reside in 13 camps, three of them considered unofficial dwellings because they were not assigned by the government.

Not everyone in Jordan is as lucky as Jihad the taxi driver, however. Some 140,000 Palestinian refugees from Gaza do not have the right to permanent citizenship because UNRWA considers Palestinian refugees as people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948.

Some 4.5 million of the displaced worldwide fit this description while the rest are often left in limbo with regards to obtaining internationally recognized passports.

The disparity between West Bank and Gaza refugees in Jordan began after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when Transjordan (which is now the West Bank and parts of Jordan) became part of the Hashemite Kingdom and Gaza became part of Egypt.

Palestinians residing in the kingdom up until 1954 were granted Jordanian citizenship. However, after the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, forcing a new wave of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to seek asylum in Jordan.

“Most refugees originated from Gaza, which was at the time under Egyptian authority,” explains Sakr. Unlike the Palestinians who came from the West Bank, Gaza residents did not have Jordanian citizenship and many of them moved into temporary residences, mainly in the Jarash camp. They were instead granted temporary passports that were renewable every two years.

Hamed (his name has been changed for the purpose of anonymity) is one of Jordan’s “temporary citizens,” whose house is located in the warrens of the al-Wahdat Palestinian refugee camp in Amman. Like many other urban camps, al-Wahdat is a typically impoverished concrete city.

“I came to Amman after the 1967 war with my wife. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but I have been living here ever since with my four children and 20 grandchildren,” recalls Hamed.

Sakr acknowledges that unlike other Jordanians, temporary residents do not have access to the full array of governmental services because of their special status.

“As Gaza Palestinians, we do not benefit from public schooling,” explains Hamed, who adds that his grandchildren attend UNRWA schools.

“It is also very difficult for us to send our children to university because they are considered Arab students and, therefore, pay higher fees than Jordanian nationals. We’re very poor as you can see,” Hamed says, pointing to the rundown six-room house where his whole family resides.

Asma, his neighbor and a mother of five, explains that holders of temporary passports are not eligible for social security services or government funded healthcare.

“My husband, a holder of the temporary nationality, does not have access to any public programs and has to seek employment in the private sector. He earns about 150 dinars [$210 dollars] a month, which is the minimum wage. His job is also unstable: sometimes, he’s out of a job for two weeks out of the month.”

Sakr explains that although not entitled to government funded medical services, refugees can use UNRWA medical centers, 174 of which are located throughout Jordan.

Other restrictions of temporary passport holders include not having the right to vote or own property, except if they have a local Jordanian partner. “The house where I live, with my children and grandchildren, is owned by the government and we can be evicted at any time,” says Hamed.

Hamed and Asma also complain about travel restrictions, saying that it is difficult for them to leave Jordan, especially to visit family members in Palestine. “I was never provided with the proper Israeli authorization that would allow me to visit my family,” says Asma.

Sakr, however, denies that there is any travel ban against holders of temporary nationalities. “Many of them have left Jordan to establish themselves in the Gulf area to work,” he replies.

Although travel should not be a problem for Gaza refugees for the most part, Sakr admits that they are confronted with more difficult living conditions than other socioeconomic classes and are more vulnerable to the incumbent economic crisis as well as high unemployment and dropout levels. “All of this has resulted in their marginalization,” he says.

In a speech to army commanders in August 2009, King Abdullah II — ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom — vowed to uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in compliance with UN resolutions, saying, “This attitude will not change and no power can force on Jordan an attitude that runs counter to its interest.”

While the pledge is praiseworthy, it may be a long time before the fate of Palestinian refugees is settled considering the apparent indifference of Arab countries and Western powers. Emergency camps have become permanent places of residence, and Gaza refugees remain on the outer fringes of citizenship, stuck in a no man’s land.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.