Since the 2014 invasion and genocide by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, at least 16,000 Assyrian Christians from Iraq have become refugees in Jordan. Most are still suffering economically and psychologically there, under extremely difficult circumstances.
These Assyrian Christians are in Jordan on a temporary basis with plans to emigrate to a third country. However, as they have not been given official work permits by the Jordanian government, they largely rely on their savings, remittances sent by relatives abroad or aid from charity organizations and churches. Jordan is supposed to be their transit country; they are seeking resettlement in other countries via the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Australian Special Humanitarian Program.
The indigenous people of Iraq, the Assyrians, have been severely persecuted for decades. According to a 2017 report by the Assyrian Confederation of Europe:
Assyrians represent one of the most consistently targeted communities in Iraq throughout its modern history. This has included the state-sanctioned massacre at Simele in 1933; Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, which included the targeting of Assyrians villages; ruthless campaigns of terror to which Christians were subjected after the U.S. invasion in 2003; and finally, the recent tragic chapter authored by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist organization.
Hence, Assyrian Christians have been forced to leave their ancestral homeland and seek asylum elsewhere including Jordan. After arriving in Jordan, they register with the UNHCR Registration Center in Amman and receive a special registration card.
The registration with the UNHCR gives them the protective status of refugee as they await resettlement. Yet, the process of resettlement takes at minimum several months and sometimes even years, due to the growing refugee backlog. Assyrians live as urban refugees, meaning they face many challenges and lack access to many humanitarian services because they live largely in isolation.
On June 20, the Assyrian Policy Institute (API) published a report entitled, “Lives on Hold: Assyrian Refugees in Jordan,” in which the authors conducted interviews with many Assyrian Christian refugees in Jordan. The root causes for the emigration of Assyrians from Iraq since 2014, according to the report, include “the lasting instability and devastation, lack of trust in various security actors, lack of livelihood opportunities, loss of property, fears of demographic change, and fears of future violence targeting Assyrians.”
Assyrian refugees have endured many traumatic experiences due to their exposure to war, ethno-religious persecution, political oppression, forced displacement, and genocide. According to the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center, refugee trauma often precedes the primary war-related events that causes them to flee.
Prior to their departure from Iraq, Assyrian refugees may have experienced imprisonment, torture, forced displacement, physical assault, rape, kidnapping, religious persecution, loss of property, loss of livelihood, family separation, and extreme fear.
Yet, the trauma of Assyrian Christians has not ended in Jordan, where they have been forced to flee. “The majority of those stuck in limbo have been waiting more than two years—some since the rise of ISIS in 2014,” according to the report. “Their wait for resettlement is characterized by limited information, uncertainty about their futures, and a growing sense of hopelessness.”
When asked about what factors drive them to seek resettlement in a third country, the Assyrian refugees cited the following reasons: “safety, religious freedom, respect for human rights, equal educational and economic opportunities, and family reunification”.
Among the most serious problems Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan face are:
A recent study conducted by the Government of Jordan found that nearly forty percent of urban refugees cannot afford needed medicines or access health care services. More than thirty percent of households interviewed by the API reported at least one household member suffered from a chronic disease or disability, noting that they struggled to access affordable medicine or care.
Access to education for Assyrian refugee children in Jordan is limited; many parents fear their children will become part of a lost generation.
Assyrian refugees from Iraq are unable to access the required work permit in order to be employed legally in Jordan due to the restrictive administrative process and the prohibitively expensive filing fees.
Assyrians are also suffering from what have been termed the “silent killers:” waiting, boredom, hopelessness, and isolation. Like most displaced peoples, feelings of weariness and frustration are widespread. Life is monotonous for many Assyrian refugees, as they spend years awaiting resettlement with little to do on a daily basis. While the long wait for a visa is anticipated, there is no guarantee of resettlement.
Nearly half of the households that remain in Jordan reported that their applications for resettlement via the Australian Special Humanitarian Program had been rejected since the time of their initial interview with the Assyrian Policy Institute (between December 2017 and January 2018). If an application is denied, there is no opportunity for an appeal, however, applicants do have the option of reapplying.
Lorance Yousuf Kazqeea, a Christian originally from Baghdad, for instance, has been an asylum seeker in Jordan with his wife and two children since September 2017, and is still trying to immigrate to the United States. He told Gatestone:
The greatest challenge for us here is that Iraqi Christian refugees can’t work legally. I was an IT (information technology) specialist in Baghdad. Many Christians from Iraq used to have a good job or business there. But we have lost everything. How are we supposed to support our families now? We rely on aid from charity organizations, churches and family members outside of Jordan. And in special and rare cases refugees get monthly salaries from the UNHCR.
Christians from Iraq want to move to the West for safety and stability. But since January, the process has become even slower and more difficult. The UNHCR has not even granted newcomers refugee status since. They just give them an appointment date, then they cancel the date and give them a new one. So we all keep waiting.
The UNHCR was approached by Gatestone for a comment but has not replied.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founding president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, which has been active in Jordan since 2015, told Gatestone:
Assyrian refugees in Jordan have lost everything in Iraq. One of the victims that our organization has been trying to help – a Christian mother in her 50s – used to have a hair salon in Iraq. ISIS terrorists attacked her, knifed her, destroying her abdominal area. The terrorists then set fire to her salon, home and everything else she owned. She and most of her family had to migrate to Jordan to seek asylum. They then applied for resettlement in Australia but were refused four times. However, their situation is even more tragic now. Her youngest children contracted an eye virus and are losing their eyesight gradually. Every 6 months, they have to renew the treatment and get new glasses. Her oldest daughter died recently in Iraq. Her teenage daughter, who was an excellent student in Iraq, has been unable to go to school for the last four years because she does not have the appropriate paperwork to go to school in Jordan. And because of that, she is suffering from severe depression. Around 50.000 Assyrians that have had to leave Iraq and have become refugees in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere have similar painful stories.
Taimoorazy made a plea to help the Christian victims of ISIS:
We’ve been told ISIS has been militarily defeated, but will we leave the victims of ISIS alone? The aftermath of the ISIS genocide in Iraq is more important for the world to pay attention to. The victims are still suffering.
The past atrocities… are unfolding before our eyes every day. Because of the refugee situation they are in, the Christian victims of ISIS have still not been liberated. For example, at least three children from one family are about to lose their eyesight because the parents are not able to provide money for their treatment. And their hope is diminishing. But we have more power than we are willing to admit. You can contact the local UNHCR office in your country and demand answers – why Iraqi Christians have been waiting for resettlement for years and why the West continuously rejects them. Western NGOs and churches can also have a local representative in Jordan. Every single individual can make a difference. The wounds of the victims of ISIS are still bleeding. Let us not stand on the sidelines.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by the Gatestone Institute and is republished here by permission.
Photo Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images