‘This is not about us,’ UNHCR says on World Refugee Day

An Afghan refugee child in Afghan Basti area
An Afghan refugee child plays in Afghan Basti area on the outskirts of Lahore on June 19, 2021 on the eve of World Refugee Day. (Photo: AFP/Arif Ali)
AMMAN — In March 2020, COVID-19 and the surrounding restrictions fundamentally changed life in Jordan - including for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who live in the country. اضافة اعلان

For the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the pandemic has required rapid change and provided an opportunity to consider how the organization is involved in both long-term development work and emergency humanitarian aid.

For World Refugee Day, Jordan News sat down for an interview with Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR’s representative in Jordan.

Bartsch explained that since February 2021, “there has been a very clear indication that the health response in the country would require a significant scaling up of resources.” He lauded the government’s inclusion of non-Syrian and Syrian refugees alike in healthcare and the national vaccination program, which he called “a significant breakthrough.”

“In the middle of pandemic response, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where some people living in the country may not avail of health support because they can’t afford it.”

“The second biggest concern is the heavy, heavy economic impact the crisis has had,” he said, explaining that many jobs in the informal sector in particular that were once viable opportunities for refugees “have disappeared.”

This lack of opportunities “exerts enormous pressure on households and families, on how they sustain themselves,” he said.

Bartsch explained that UNHCR’s cash support program, which reaches over 33,000 refugee families in Jordan, is the organization’s “biggest support mechanism.” But “before COVID-19 hit, we had already covered the most vulnerable (families). Since March last year, that number has only gone up, it hasn’t gone down. So there is an increase in need, there’s an increase in destitution.” The agency has also distributed emergency COVID-19 cash assistance to an additional 56,000 refugee families.

“Cash assistance is so much more than a delivery mechanism; (it) is actually a much more dignified way of helping the household make those expenditure decisions by themselves,” he said. “So in a way, there is also a sense of respect behind using cash.”

UNHCR is often referred to as the “UN agency for refugees”, but as Bartsch explained, refugees, most of whom live in cities, and the host communities where they live are almost impossible to separate.

The pandemic “is a crisis that has affected the whole society,” he said. “Many Jordanians have lost their jobs, many Jordanians are falling below the poverty line and are really, really struggling.”

He explained that the pandemic has been an opportunity to assess need across Jordan with UNHCR’s “double focus, on supporting refugees and also supporting the Jordanian host community, and of course, the Jordanian government.”

For UNHCR, the pandemic has been an opportunity to revise its programs both at the technical level - “the manner in which you do remote renewal of registration” - and the conceptual level.

“One critical lesson learned is that we need to look at the totality of the impact crisis has on people,” he said.  “And that's very important for us as UNHCR to keep an eye on, because we're not just responsible for distributing funding from international donors, we are responsible for the welfare of the community.”

“What we're witnessing now is, for instance, the emergence of negative coping mechanisms. And those can range from a family indebting themselves to putting children out of school or an increase in child labor.”

Bartsch emphasized the importance of keeping coherent lines of communications open with the refugees the agency serves, including through social media. UNHCR started a series of Facebook town halls to directly communicate with beneficiaries during the pandemic.

“It's also very important that, never mind what structures we set in place, as individual staff, we have frequent conversations with refugees,” he said. “Every so often I go and visit refugees in their homes, to really get into a conversation to understand their challenges and what is happening in their life at an individual level.”

“At one level, it is reassuring, because many refugees who are really, really struggling to make ends meet, also have a lot of resilience, and they have a lot of determination,” he said. “But of course, it is also heart-wrenching. Because you see situations where there is massive destitution, there is real need, there is even uncertainty around the protection status.”

According to UNHCR’s latest statistics, there are 666,692 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, in addition to 66,706 Iraqi refugees, 13,580 Yemeni refugees, 696 Sudanese refugees, and 1,449 refugees of other nationalities. Bartsch explained that nationality significantly affects a refugee’s experience in Jordan.

“In Jordan, there is a very clear and generous support mechanism for refugees from Syria. The situation is somewhat less clear for other nationalities,” he said. Although “the posture of the government is still supportive and welcoming” towards these refugees, “what we are hoping for is that we can get to a level where all individuals who come to Jordan seeking protection are given a chance to present their case.”

In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, UNHCR’s work has transitioned over the decade since the civil war began. Practices “evolve over time, because the needs evolve,” he said.

“If you imagine in a crisis situation, we are like the nurse, who is able to treat some of the symptoms of that conflict. We provide relief for a group of people who have been directly affected by the conflict,” he said. “We are not a surgeon who has to perform an operation in order to fix the underlying problem.” He explained that the organization has a very specific and clear mandate - and that the international community is needed to resolve the underlying issues that create refugees.

“Having an international architecture that supports refugee protection, that helps governments in undertaking their obligation under the convention, is a very important expression of international solidarity,” he said.

“The vast majority of Jordanians are still steadfast in their support” of Syrian refugees, he said. He emphasized the importance of maintaining Jordan’s “welcoming spirit” towards Syrian refugees, who now constitute around 10 percent of the total population of the Kingdom. The concerns of Syrian refugees and local Jordanians are in fact “very, very closely aligned and very closely complimentary.”

Jordan is unique in this regard. “You have some governments that have hardened over time, that have been less welcoming and less generous,” Bartsch noted. “Many borders are closed.” And although Jordan’s support is steadfast, he added that, “10 years after the crisis, some donors have already signaled that funding will decrease. Not just to UNHCR but to the wider refugee situation in Jordan.”

In the future, “I would imagine the pressure on humanitarian actors will continue,” he said. “But let me make one thing really clear. This is not about us. This is about the impact on the refugees.”

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