International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Jordan refugee crisis: Where to begin?

The widely disparate refugee figures initially had me scratching my head. The government of Jordan says there are as many as 80,000 Syrian refugees here, while only 5,000 have registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). As a former journalist, I vastly prefer facts to uncertainty. But in the growing Syrian refugee crisis, those facts remain elusive. I now understand why. Refugees tell us the low number of UNHCR registrants is due to a number of reasons. Among them? Their view is that while the UNHCR may help them avoid deportation, it hasn’t yet provided many of them with tangible support, so few have signed up. Families also complain that in order to register for aid, they are required to make an expensive and time-consuming trip to the capital Amman.

I’ve been with the International Rescue Committee for less than a year, so still have a lot to learn about responding to humanitarian crises. For journalists, the standard refugee scenario is the classic one. If you’ve watched news coverage about Syria in the past week, you have likely seen it. It’s where thousands of refugees are packed into tented border camps. That’s how Turkey has responded to its influx of Syrians. It’s a different scenario in Lebanon and Jordan, where other Syrians have fled. Neither country has large camps, and most of the refugees I speak with say, if there were, they would avoid them.

Increasingly in our urbanized world, refugees are scattered across cities. It’s a phenomenon aid workers refer to as “urban refugees,” and it’s becoming the standard in contemporary humanitarian crises, where there’s not a coordinated, proactive response to a massive and sudden geographic shift of humanity. We see it with Somali refugees in Nairobi, Burmese in Bangkok, and Iraqis in Damascus and Amman. If urbanized refugees have an opportunity to live in an apartment or house, many prefer it to a packed tent in a sprawling camp surrounded by barbed wire and spotlights. In the urban environment they have a better chance to obtain work, they have relative freedom of movement, and they have their own space.

That’s the situation in Jordan, where many Syrian refugees have rented a couple of rooms in apartment blocks in the border cities of Mafraq and Irbid.  While it may provide the best option for those who can afford rent, it’s a context that makes it difficult for relief organizations to start delivering aid. One of our first steps in a crisis is to undertake “assessments,” which involve sending teams into the field to speak with those in need, as well as with government officials and other support organizations. This ensures our programs aren’t based on an impulsive response, but on clear facts and needs. It avoids wasting both time and limited funding. We seek a larger sampling because it provides more accuracy. But while it’s typically simple to track down representatives from government or aid organizations to speak with, when refugees are scattered over a wide urban environment (as they are in Jordan), it makes the initial response more challenging. 

There are two approaches we typically take in this scenario. After we conduct “Service Mapping”, where we look at who’s providing what type of support where, (this is to avoid any overlap of services), we then conduct “Household Surveys.” This means meeting with families to determine their condition and needs. Their priorities can consist of anything from food, to safety, to shelter, or a job. The survey enables us to better prioritize what refugees require. But this is where the urban refugee scenario creates difficulty from a humanitarian standpoint. In the camp environment, everyone is centrally located and easily accessible. However, since urban refugees are often scattered throughout buildings in many cities, finding families requires time and creativity, and is typically labor intensive.

One method of expediting the process is to provide an initial distribution of aid. We will often provide hygiene kits, consisting of soap, towels, and the like. Then word of mouth brings others forward. A distribution can also be coupled with door-to-door canvassing. My colleagues call it “Snowball Sampling” — think of it as the hub of a wheel, with spokes extending outward. Teams fan out in areas where refugees are known to live; they will then interview individual families. Each family will likely know of other refugees, which the teams will then visit.

It’s not a simple approach, but in the case of urban refugees, it’s one of the most effective methods of ensuring our response is as targeted and effective as it can be.


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1 comment


The refugees of this world

The refugees of this world need our assistance but reaching them is not easy. The ultimate goal must be to enlist all partners in the fight, beginning with social media. The humanitarian approach is the only answer and may say it all. As a free agent, I would happily help in any way possible.