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IRIN - Jordan


Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 11:18:26 +0000

Ali and Abdelarahmen, 15-year-old cousins from Syria, pause on one of their regular weekend walks through central Hamburg to take a selfie together in front of the Alster canal – one of their favourite spots in the German city.   These walks are part of new routines they’ve built for themselves since arriving here as 12-year-olds in September 2014. Their selfies are not just acts of teenage expression. Ali and Abdelarahmen are among tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe who rely on pictures, messaging apps, and video calls to bridge the distance that separates them from their families.   Such separations are becoming longer as many EU states, including Germany, take an increasingly restrictive approach to the right of refugees, guaranteed by international and EU law, to be reunited with their immediate family. The impacts of such policies are being keenly felt both by the refugees urged to integrate without the support of their loved ones and by family members left behind struggling to adapt to prolonged separations from children and spouses. Ali and Abdelarahmen and their families fled the violence in their Syrian hometown of Deraa for Jordan in 2012. But after two years in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, their lives felt increasingly hopeless. Abdelarahmen’s father, Mohammad, worked illegally in a parking garage to supplement the family’s monthly aid allowance. His 10-year-old sister, Sara, the eldest of three girls bookended by two boys, was starting to fall behind in school. She needed extra tuition – something the family couldn’t afford. Europe offered the hope of a brighter future for the children, but the costs and risks of the journey ruled out the possibility of travelling as a family. The two cousins knew of other boys who had set out as envoys for their families, making lives in Europe and then sending for parents, brothers, and sisters to join them later. As the eldest son and a standout student, Abdelarahmen was a natural choice to go ahead. He, Ali, and two other cousins set out from Jordan with a group of other Syrians in August 2014. They flew to Algeria and were driven to Tunis by a smuggler, who later abandoned them. Mohammad had to sell his wife Amal’s jewellery to finance the remainder of the boys’ journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. The trip cost $2,500 per boy: an eye-watering sum for a family living on a little over $250 a month. Policy shift   Nearly three years later, Abdelarahmen is fluent in German and a big Justin Bieber fan. Living up to his academic promise, he recently started attending a German secondary school. His more reserved cousin, Ali, is passionate about football.   However, the prospect of seeing their parents again is no closer. If 2015 was the year of Willkommenskultur in Germany, 2016 was the year of a hardening policy stance towards refugees. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) began issuing subsidiary protection rather than full refugee status to many asylum seekers. Subsidiary protection comes with a one-year residence permit instead of the three years granted to those with refugee status and, starting in March 2016, no right to family reunification for two years.   Germany is not alone in this shift.   “There is a general trend across EU member states to make family reunification more difficult, by lowering the level of rights given to subsidiary protection holders in comparison to those with refugee status,” explained Minos Mouzourakis of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “As subsidiary protection is less regulated than refugee status under EU law, states have more leeway to restrict rights attached to it.”   Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are among other countries that have applied similar measures. In the UK, unaccompanied minors with refugee status have no right to apply for family members to join them, and the government has rejected calls by campaigners to change that rule, arguing that it would create “perverse incentives” for more unaccompani[...]

Techno-utopian solutions to Syria’s refugee crisis fall short

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 14:49:54 +0000

In a dull, pre-fabricated caravan in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, a group of Syrian children marvel at brand-new laptops and tablets, tapping out words. In another corner, a clutch of youngsters, many in ragged clothes, watch cartoons downloaded from the Internet.   “We don’t want lost generation after lost generation,” says Patrick Weil, president of Libraries Without Borders, as he watches over the children. With financial support from the Alex Soros Foundation, his organisation donated this portable multimedia centre, loaded with learning tools.   Slickly designed by French designer Philippe Starck, the Ideas Box contains tablets, laptops with satellite Internet connections, a movie projector, chairs, tables, puppets and board games. Teachers hover nearby, facilitating discussion and prodding the kids to join in.   Technology-led aid projects like this one are a reaction to Syria’s relentless six-year-long conflict which has pushed more than five million refugees into neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.   In Jordan alone, which is host to more than 655,000 registered Syrian refugees, a dizzying array of technology-led projects for refugees are rolling out with the backing of well-meaning, tech-savvy benefactors.  One initiative by Tech Tribes aims to create a tech-supported learning space for Syrian and Jordanian women. Another is developing a mobile application for refugees with mental disabilities.   Advocates of this approach say they’re bringing valuable solutions to the table, but some experts more familiar with local contexts describe such programmes as expensive band-aids that deliver mixed results.   “It's hard to measure these projects and hard to evaluate,” commented Sami Hourani, founder of, a website that aggregates educational and job opportunities for young people in the region.   Hourani said there is a need for long-term, sustainable initiatives based on detailed research about refugees’ educational and employment needs. He added that programmes designed without this sort of empirical backing are often guesswork and a waste of resources.   Covering the basics   According to Libraries Without Borders, the Ideas Box is a means for young refugees to pick up skills and complete correspondence courses or online training. However, many of Zaatari’s young people are long out of school and working to help support their families. For them, logging enough hours with the Ideas Box to earn a degree is a tall order.   Amanda Lane, executive director of the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a grassroots charity that works in one of Amman’s poorest neighbourhoods, stressed the importance of appropriate giving. This starts, she said, by knowing what a community really needs. She gave the example of a box of Raspberry Pi computers recently donated to her organisation to help the children they work with learn to code.   “Coding? Our kids aren’t even literate,” she said. “IT skills are useful and there will be people who can benefit, but the vast majority need foundational skills.”   After years in exile, most Syrians living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have few remaining resources and restricted rights to work, while their children have often been out of school for as long as five years. Lane believes their real need is not for high-tech solutions, but for basic education and wellness programming. Her focus is on providing a safe space and experienced, professional facilitators. When children and adults come to CRP’s after-school programmes, group discussions and yoga classes, they are acting on a need to feel safe and human again, she told IRIN.   “People come here, they do this, and it’s like, ‘For a time, I forget I’m a refugee’,” said Lane.   The need to feel normal again isn’t lost on those backing big-ticket tech projects for refugees.   “We give refugees the right to water, shelter [and] food, which is what they need at first, but then what about their humanity?” asked Alex Soros, who funds Ideas B[...]

Jordan looks to turn refugee crisis into economic boon

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 13:26:48 +0000

Last February, Jordan and the international community agreed on a radically new approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Instead of viewing refugees as a burden that could only be alleviated by humanitarian aid, the new agreement described them as “a development opportunity” that, with sufficient levels of investment and structural reforms, could benefit Jordan’s entire economy.   The Jordan Compact was welcomed as a potential blueprint for other host countries looking for ways to reduce their dependence on dwindling sources of aid and shift towards a development response that helps refugees become more self-reliant.   According to the World Bank, which is helping to fund the compact’s implementation, it’s “a win-win proposition for Jordan”, but more than a year later, Jordan is struggling to translate its new approach into more economic opportunities for Syrians or Jordanians.   The small, resource-poor country of 9.5 million people – three million of them foreigners according to the 2016 census – has a long history of absorbing the region’s displaced. Beginning in 1948, Jordan welcomed waves of Palestinians, and then in the 1990s and 2000s, it was Iraqis. Each influx has added jobs, cash, and diversity to the economy.    But the arrival of close to one million Syrian refugees over the past five years (only 657,000 of whom are currently registered with UNHCR) has been tougher to absorb. The issue is partly demographic: Many of Jordan’s Syrians are from poor, rural areas of southern Syria, in contrast to the well-heeled Iraqis who flocked here decades earlier. Meanwhile, the war in Syria and border closures with both Syria and Iraq have hit trade, crippling Jordan’s export economy and compounding the strain of coping with so many needy newcomers.    Jordan’s economic slowdown has not been helped by the fact that Syrians are largely prevented from working legally. This is designed to protect Jordanian jobs in a stagnating market with an unemployment rate of 15.8 percent (around double that for youth), but has kept hundreds of thousands of Syrians dependent on aid and low-paid, informal work. This has driven wages down, edging out many Jordanians, and resulted in lower government revenues from taxes and employer social insurance payments.   The Jordan Compact, agreed at a major donor conference in London in February 2016, secured $1.7 billion in grants, low-interest loans, and pledges from the international community, in return for Jordan opening up its labour market to Syrian refugees. Besides funding, Jordan was promised access to tariff-free trade with the EU, providing it issued at least 200,000 work permits to Syrians. Until that target is hit, businesses located in 18 special economic zones (SEZs) throughout Jordan can unlock preferential access to the EU market by employing Syrians as 15 percent of their workforce in the first two years, and 25 percent thereafter.   One year on, Jordan has secured $923.6 million in funding, including $147 million in World Bank loans and a December 2016 cash transfer from the United States of close to half a billion dollars. But the hoped-for results haven’t yet materialised. Work permits were made widely available to Syrians from April 2016, but by February 2017, just 38,516 permits had been issued, according to Jordan’s Ministry of Labour.   Trust deficit Alisa Reznick/IRIN Ahmad Yassin Hamood, 28, successfully applied for a work permit through his employer at a nut roastery in Amman last summer Thirty-year-old Daraa native Ahmad Alhmood recently acquired a work permit after years of working in a food shop without one.   “Before getting my permit I used to watch my back all the time. I worried all the time that the authorities could come to my work,” Alhmood told IRIN.     Syrians caught working illegally can be arrested, detained, sent to Azraq refugee camp, and, in some cases, deported back to Syria. Alhmo[...]

EXCLUSIVE: World Vision rattles aid groups with solo operation for Syrians at Jordan border

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 18:40:29 +0000

Some 70,000 Syrians are stranded in a demilitarised zone on the Jordan-Syria border, with aid severely limited and subject to tight restrictions. IRIN can reveal that while the UN delivers assistance by crane or by contractor, the US NGO World Vision is taking a different and controversial approach: using a “moderate” Syrian militia to help bring in supplies.   Aid agencies have tried a range of workarounds to deliver help since Jordan sealed off the area – known as the “berm” – following a June attack by so-called Islamic State. The UN’s efforts have delivered some food to more than 46,000 people and maintained a minimal water supply. A service centre has also been built in Jordanian territory to provide medical care.   All those trying to help the stranded Syrians are treading a fine line on the humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence. Because it can’t enter the berm, the UN has engaged contractors vetted by the Jordanian Armed Forces – themselves unable to enter the area – to do humanitarian distributions and related tasks inside the no man’s land, along the lines of a plan reported exclusively by IRIN in October.   World Vision, however, has opted to pay a logistics contractor affiliated with a militia run by Syrian businessman Rakan Khdeir and backed by Jordan. Khdeir’s militia provides armed protection. While this route has its critics, the NGO says it’s effective and getting aid where it needs to go.   And, according to one well-placed source, one of the UN’s contractors, First Technical Support Company (FTSC), is in fact paying the same militia to provide security for its own food distribution.   Mageed Yahia, the World Food Programme's country director in Jordan, told IRIN any security arrangements made by their contractor, FTSC, was the business of the contractor, not the WFP.   “They are supposed to arrange their own security. We told them that we can’t provide it… it’s not under our obligation” he told IRIN. “This is what we’ve been allowed by the government: distribution can only be done inside the no man’s land, and we can only do a distribution if a contractor carries it out.”   UNHCR, UNICEF and OCHA were also contacted by IRIN for this report but declined to discuss details of contracting arrangements at the berm.   A lawless zone   On Saturday, a car bomb exploded at Rukban, the larger of two settlements on the berm, killing at least six and injuring more than 14. It was the fourth blast in the demilitarised zone in seven months. It was also a reminder that tens of thousands of civilians are stranded in an area that has been infiltrated by IS on several occasions and is too lawless for most aid agencies to enter.   The Syrians see the Jordanian side as a beacon of stability: “I feel afraid when I go to the Syrian berm alone,” said Asmaa, a mother of four living in Rukban (she asked IRIN not to use her real name for her own security). “I feel more confidence and safety when we see the Jordanian berm, because it’s organised and has guards. There are people there who stay up at night to protect it, and protect the people in it.” Anonymous/IRIN In mid-2014, Syrians began piling up at the berm’s two crossing points: Rukban and Hadalat. Some were granted entry. Most were not.   Under pressure from the international community, in early 2016 Jordan increased aid and admissions. But after an IED killed seven troops on 21 June, entries ceased and the area was declared a military zone. Now, more than 70,000 people have amassed on the berm.   Only a trickle of aid has entered in the more than seven months since that June blast, and that’s why Khdeir, the leader of a Syrian militia known as the Tribal Army (full name: Free Tribes’ Army), says he began meeting with aid agencies in late August – he was frustrated with the pace of the UN delivery system.   Sheikh Rakan, as Khdeir is also known, has close[...]

The “buffer zone” plan for 70,000 stranded Syrian refugees

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 07:56:47 +0000

Blocked from entering Jordan, some 70,000 Syrians are camped out near a border crossing known as Rukban, one of two locations where refugees and asylum seekers are marooned in a demilitarised zone a few kilometres wide on the Syria-Jordan border, demarcated by ridges of bulldozed earth known as berms. Syrians began arriving at this remote, wind-battered stretch of desert in July 2014, and with Jordan refusing the majority entry, as the settlement has grown it has also become home to a mix of smugglers and rebel groups, extremist militants, as well as Jordanian and allied foreign forces active in the area. A suicide attack claimed by so-called Islamic State killed seven Jordanian security personnel at a Rukban military base on 21 June, prompting Jordan to tighten security. Aid has been reduced to almost nothing, and the UN and donors have been trying to thrash out a deal for weeks. The plan for Rukban, drafted by the UN in consultation with the Jordanian military, is laid out in a provisional agreement obtained exclusively by IRIN, and further outlined in briefings from diplomats and aid officials. At a glance Aid will reach the refugees but under new conditions Donors are expected to fund a $39 million package of humanitarian measures, as well as additional security support to Jordan The package will not allow more refugees into Jordan The new aid distribution point will be moved deeper into the DMZ, possibly just into Syria, in the hope that the displaced Syrians will move northwest of their current location The new distribution point will be patrolled by a unit of Syrian security guards trained in Jordan, while fencing and other measures aim to contain movement Another 7,000 Syrians at Hadalat, a crossing point 90 kilometres to the west, are not covered by the scheme Satellite imagery obtained by an NGO shows new earthworks in the DMZ The deal, agreed in principle by the UN but not yet formally accepted by the new chief of the Jordanian Armed Forces, General Mahmoud Freihat, comes three and a half months after the bomber entered Jordan through the distribution area and detonated his vehicle and after which most aid was suspended. Supplies of aid to the berm were already patchy at best. Since the attack, only a trickle of water has been provided – well below minimum standards – and a single, crane-delivered food drop. Security For Jordan, a key US ally and peaceful bulwark against extremism in the region, security is the primary concern. The ease with which a militant entered the country from amongst the civilians at the berm and carried out a suicide mission has spooked authorities here. “That car came from Rukban camp, and in less than two minutes, they had done their business,” Brigadier-General Mohammad al-Mawajdeh, the JAF’s director of civil military affairs, told IRIN. He stressed that what Jordan needed most was more time to respond to possible threats. Diplomats present at negotiations say that after the June attack, some proposals involved moving the Syrians beyond the northern berm, well into Syria. But humanitarians balked at the prospect of pushing refugees back into their country of origin, closer to an active war zone. This would also have been questionable under international humanitarian law and a principle known as non-refoulement, which precludes the forcible driving of refugees back towards persecution. Peter Biro/ECHO A Syrian child living at Rukban at the berm on the border between Syria and Jordan A compromise was eventually found to relocate the main aid distribution point within the berm area but still closer to the Syrian war. The new location is some 7km north-west of the current distribution point, and around 9km from the military base where Jordanian and other allied forces are based. UN officials are hoping for what they have referred to in meetings as “a spontaneous movement of refugees to the n[...]

EXCLUSIVE: The UN is waiting for Assad to approve its new Syria chief

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 19:36:16 +0000

The UN is still without a top official in Syria because the government of Bashar al-Assad has not approved the world body’s selection, a UN spokesperson told IRIN on Tuesday.“The new HC's [humanitarian coordinator’s] arrival is on track, but is currently awaiting [the] Syrian government's final approval,” the spokesperson said by email. The previous resident and humanitarian coordinator, Sudan’s Yacoub El Hillo, left Syria more than a month ago, telling the BBC on 26 August the world had failed Syria. Another UN spokesman, Farhan Haq, told IRIN: “We continue to await an announcement, but have not received one just yet.” The UN aid system in Syria has only had stand-in leadership since El Hillo’s departure, a period that has seen “unprecedented” military action in Aleppo, according to political envoy Staffan de Mistura, and an attack on an aid convoy near Aleppo that left at least 20 dead. The UN has come under criticism for allowing the al-Assad regime to influence its aid delivery, and 73 NGOs announced on 8 September that they were suspending cooperation with a UN information-sharing scheme in protest. The position of UN resident coordinator is the highest-ranking UN official in a member state and holds diplomatic status equivalent to an ambassador. In a crisis-affected country like Syria, the role is bundled together with that of humanitarian coordinator, carrying a wide-ranging set of responsibilities in the delivery of emergency relief. El Hillo’s replacement, according to multiple UN sources, was expected to be Ali Al-Za’tari, a Jordanian serving in the UN’s office in Libya since June 2015. His name has been rumoured since early August, but the UN has not publicly disclosed his candidacy. Haq told IRIN he “cannot confirm any candidate until one is officially announced”. Following diplomatic convention, a member state must approve the appointment of a UN resident coordinator, as it does an ambassador, and can effectively block an individual it does not welcome. Al-Za’tari held the same position in Syria from 2004 to 2007. bp/as/ag (TOP PHOTO: Ali H Al-Za'tari, UN Resident Coordinator for Libya. UN photo)     ali-zatari-768x432.jpg News Aid and Policy Conflict EXCLUSIVE: UN waits for Assad government to approve new chief for Syria Ben Parker IRIN LONDON Middle East and North Africa Jordan Syria العربية [...]

Syrians trapped in desert no man's land

Thu, 09 Jun 2016 10:57:33 +0000

Some 60,000 Syrians are currently trapped in Rukban and the smaller Hadalat, makeshift camps in a barren slice of desert at the border between Syria and Jordan. Accounts from the settlements describe a lawless no man’s land where healthcare, food, and water are difficult to access. They are places ruled by violence and fear, threatened by disease and where relief is hard to find. With daytime temperatures topping 40 degrees, the fasting month of Ramadan, which started this week, will be particularly gruelling. These makeshift camps are sandwiched between two ridges of earth and sand (berms). The international border, based on the 1916 Sykes-Picot line, should be somewhere between the berms, built by Syrian and Jordanian authorities to demarcate a demilitarised buffer zone. In recent weeks, it’s become clear the camps are not just temporary way stations, but here to stay, and growing. The little aid that gets in is poorly targeted and monitored. Jordan is letting in 100-200 each day. But some Syrians are choosing to stay in limbo at the berm, unsure of the reception that awaits them in Jordan, or fearing they will be sent back to Syria. According to recent projections by humanitarian agencies, the border population could reach 100,000 by the end of the year. International aid organisations are constructing a service area on the Jordanian side of the berm at Rukban, which will serve as a base for providing goods and services. “These people will be left in the desert" “Let’s be honest, it’s going to be a permanent service area,” a source familiar with the situation told IRIN. “Unless we’re finding a solution to the conflict, unless we’re finding a long-term solution for these asylum seekers, this camp is going to stay; and this setup is going to stay.” The problematic “setup” is one that’s been gradually evolving, to the dismay of humanitarian observers, for more than a year. In mid-2014, Jordan, which hosts some 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, effectively closed its border crossing points at Rukban and Hadalat. That stopped Syrians entering Jordan, but not their desire, or drive, to flee. Contributor Hot, dusty, dangerous: Rukban camp between Syria and Jordan Many still headed towards Jordan but found their way barred. Gradually, a community of asylum seekers amassed at the country’s eastern border: 5,000 people last November, 20,000 by January this year. The numbers have tripled since and now more than 60,000 are stuck there. Estimates are derived in part from satellite imagery, as international access is blocked. Many of those living here have been waiting to cross for more than six months. In March this year, Jordan began letting several hundred Syrians in daily. In less than three months, nearly 20,000 have arrived at Azraq camp, not far from the border. But Azraq has reached its working capacity. The numbers entering Jordan have declined significantly from a peak of 400-500 a day in mid-May. Although border officials insist people are still arriving, while undergoing strict security vetting, it’s unlikely that the tens of thousands at the berm will all be able to enter Jordan. Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN “These people will be left in the desert,” the humanitarian source said. Survival of the fittest The fate of these forgotten people depends on a fragile infrastructure cut through by the high-stakes politics of the earthen berm. The community lives on one side of the berm, an area of sunbaked desert with no running water, no authorities and almost no facilities. On the Jordanian side of the berm, aid agencies set up for daily distribution, bringing mobile clinics, food provision and, to a limited extent, psychosocial support. Water is brought in trucks and distributed among individuals who then have to carry it back [...]

Jordan detains Syrian refugees in Village 5 “jail”

Fri, 27 May 2016 14:41:32 +0000

Rana spent more than five months at the Jordanian border with Syria, with very little in the way of food, water, medical care or shelter. She eventually made it into Jordan, but for the past 20 days the 15-year-old has been trapped, alongside thousands of others, inside what is euphemistically known as “Village 5”, a fenced-off compound within the UN-run Azraq camp, some 80 kilometres east of Amman. Her home is one of several thousand metal shelters, laid out in a regimented grid of dusty dirt tracks behind 10-foot high barbed-wire fencing. With almost nothing to occupy her time, Rana spends her days queuing for food rations, carrying pumped water around, and trying, often without success, to escape the heat. Like all of the approximately 12,700 Syrian refugees living here, she’s prevented from leaving by the fence and, beyond that, desert. At a young age, Rana is caught at one of the darkest points of the Syrian refugee crisis, a place no one in the aid system much wants to talk about. IRIN gained rare access and spoke to a few of the refugees, but aid agencies that work inside the camp were wary of speaking on record about the place. Despite repeated requests, UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, refused to even comment on Village 5, which it runs along with the rest of Azraq. Abeer lives in Village 5 too, and is dealing with the fallout from her own flight from Syria. She’s paid a minimal wage for her work at a makeshift education centre, having nabbed one of a handful of sought-after "paid volunteering" opportunities in Village 5. Back home, she was a teacher; her colleagues now include young people who worked as engineers or were studying at university to become pharmacists. “We can’t go out. I can’t see my family; my family can’t come to see me,” the 24-year-old, who has close relatives in a city close to Amman, tells IRIN. “We are in a fenced area. It’s like a jail.” Bethan Staton/IRIN No going back to the berm Rana is happy to be here, but then she has travelled from far worse. “Things are very good,” she says, smiling. “There are no problems. We have a caravan. There’s water and food. Everything is available.” That’s a major change from where she came from – a no man’s land just south of Jordan’s border with Syria, a raised sand barrier known as “the berm”, where some 60,000 Syrians are now massed.  When the violence in Syria began in 2011, hundreds of thousands sought safe haven in Jordan. At first, most went to Zaatari camp, which at its height in 2013 sheltered more than 150,000 refugees. Many have since left for the country’s cities and towns. Others have sought refuge in Europe, and others still have returned to Syria, leaving Zaatari’s current population at just under 80,000. In mid-2013, Jordan quietly closed its western borders. This meant all Syrians trying to make it to Jordan, including those from Aleppo and from areas in the northeast controlled by so-called Islamic State (the group began its offensive on Deir Ezzor in April 2014), began to head for the east and the berm. By mid-2014, the eastern crossings were closed off too, leaving all those attempting to enter Jordan stranded on the berm. And they kept coming. In April of last year there were an estimated 2,500 Syrians hoping to gain entry, and the number has exponentially climbed since then.  Jordan, which hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, considers the newcomers a security concern – in January King Abdullah said that members of IS were known to be at the berm. The fears are based both on the chaos of the berm and where Syrians have come from to get there – Aleppo, Homs, Deir Ezzor, and areas in the northeast that are either controlled by IS or necessitate a journey through territory it controls. Humanitarians have complained about [...]

Eye spy: biometric aid system trials in Jordan

Wed, 18 May 2016 06:17:18 +0000

There is only one supermarket at Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. It’s a cavernous space, packed with crowds and stacked with tins and boxes. Sabha, a mother of six who came here from Aleppo four months ago, browses the tinned pulses, eggs, rice and fresh vegetables that line the shelves and sits on her stacked rations for the month as she queues to buy them. When she pays, however, Sabha doesn’t take out her purse. She simply looks into a small black machine, and buys her groceries using only her eyes. Sabha is using a new iris scanning system that’s just been rolled out in Azraq, a camp that houses some 30,000 Syrian refugees in the Jordanian desert. The machine takes a detailed reading of her eye, matches it against hundreds of thousands of records, and deducts her grocery bill from her monthly World Food Programme allowance. This is relatively groundbreaking technology, and it’s now the standard means of distributing food aid in Azraq. “It’s a first not just for refugees, but for the whole shopping and retail industry,” Shada Moghraby, WFP’s spokeswoman in Jordan, told IRIN. Soon the scanners will be in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrians, and it’s hoped they’ll appear in urban supermarkets too, as the 85 percent of Syrian refugees who live in Jordan’s cities already use iris scanners to withdraw monetary assistance from cashpoints. But not all refugees are convinced of the technology’s value – Sabha says it actually makes her shopping more of a slog – and privacy advocates are concerned too. “The fact is that it is so powerful,” says Eric Töpfer of the German Institute for Human Rights. “If [the data] doesn’t stop [at aid use] and it’s shared more liberally and used with less control or without controls… then it can do harm.” New technology, new problems Sabha’s shopping is made possible by a biometric data network that’s now a normal part of life for the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan. Iris scans, taken when refugees register in the country, are stored in a database kept by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and used to verify individuals as they seek assistance from UNHCR and, more recently, other UN agencies like WFP. The system has significant benefits over the cards it’s replacing. Cutting down on paperwork by connecting recipients direct to the allowances they receive, it’s a more secure method of delivery that ensures allowances are only used by the people they’re intended for. Moghraby says that feedback from refugees in Azraq camp has generally been positive, with particular advantages for the elderly. “It eliminates hassle and waiting time and can’t… get lost in the way cards can,” she says. At the supermarket, however, the refugees themselves don’t seem convinced at all. Sabha says that the eye-scanning system has made her life more, not less difficult. “I’m pregnant, and I’m frightened for my unborn child,” she explains, gesturing at the chaos of the supermarket. Because she’s named as the head of household responsible for the money only she can access the monthly WFP allowance with her eyes. “I’d rather my son go and get the food for me, but he can’t because of the iris scanner. My sister is in the same situation. She has six kids. They’re young, but she has to take them to the supermarket when she goes to pick up food.” Ivor Prickett/UNHCR Azraq has only one supermarket Her grievance becomes a common theme among the other shoppers: many say they prefer the older cards, which allowed them more freedom to cooperate with friends and ask family members to run errands on their behalf. The fact that Azraq’s single supermarket takes significant time and effort to get to only makes the situ[...]

No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit

Thu, 10 Mar 2016 14:14:55 +0000

Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route. Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety. Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications. When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. Jordan closed its borders to the vast majority of Syrians in September 2014, but many are still arriving there. The numbers stranded at crossing points near Rukban and Hadalat have been growing steadily since January and have now reached more than 37,000. Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN Lebanon was a popular way station. It had always been easy to cross the Lebanese border, and from there Syrian refugees with the money could either fly or seek passage by boat to Turkey – seen as the best gateway for illegal migration to Europe due to its proximity to Greece and the fact you didn’t need a visa to get there. But Lebanon ended its open-door policy for Syrians in January 2015 when it introduced new regulations requiring them to apply for difficult-to-obtain visas or a Lebanese sponsor before being admitted. And then in January 2016, the Turkish government began to require visas for Syrians arriving by land or sea, effectively cutting off Lebanon as a route to Europe. Other options are bleak. The heavily militarised and UN-patrolled border with Israel leads to the contested Golan Heights. Asylum seekers cannot cross. Iraq, particularly the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, saw an influx of Syrian refugees in 2013. The borders are now mostly closed to asylum seekers. Egypt, the other main aerial route out, closed its doors to Syrians without visas in July 2013. As “No Entry” signs were erected elsewhere, the perilous overland option through Syria’s northern border to Turkey became increasingly popular. North Aleppo Province: Syrians try to cross the Turkish border illegally width="640" height="360" src="" frameborder="0" gesture="media" allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen=""> Lindsey Snell/IRIN Syrians at an illegal crossing point in northern Aleppo Province talk about their attempts to cross into Turkey But Turkey, long the most generous host country in terms of the sheer numbers of Syrians it has taken in, closed its last two official border crossing points to almost all asylum seekers in March 2015. And in recent months, it has implemented further border controls aimed at not just cracking down on smugglers of goods and people, but also at preventing Kurdish fighters and militants from so-called Islamic State crossing its border with S[...]