I came to Amman/Jordan on 8 March 2020, only three days before the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as a pandemic. I had travelled to Jordan to conduct interviews with Syrian refugees in order to gain a better understanding of their economic integration in society. However, the COVID-19 crisis changed my original plans as it changed almost everything, from the governments’ refugee policies to human relations across the world.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data shows that Jordan hosts the second-highest share of refugees per capita in the world with 654,681 Syrians as of November 2019. Moreover, 18.9% of Syrian refugees stay in the camps while the rest of them live in various cities across Jordan. On the day WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, there was only one case of COVID-19 in Jordan, but the number of cases has increased significantly since time has passed, with now over 1,000 cases in the country confirmed.
I decided to shift the focus of my interviews with the Syrian refugees to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has been affecting their daily lives in Jordan. The Government of Jordan announced a nationwide curfew beginning Saturday, March 21 at 7:00 am. As a result of the curfew, the movement of people was prohibited; all shops were closed. People were allowed to leave their houses only between 10am and 6 pm, and there was a curfew every Friday. As a result of the curfew, I immediately called my interpreter to devise a way to conduct interviews by group phone call instead of in person.
We had our first group phone call on April 7th around 11am. We called Zara, who fled from Syria and has been living in Jordan since 2013. I had already had a face-to-face interview with her before the nationwide curfew, on 9th of March, to understand the main challenges for her in trying to integrate within the society in Jordan. She had invited us into her home for the conversation. At the time, she was living in a small town, a middle-class residential area called Sahab, with her husband and four children. According to Sahab council data, its population consists of about 169,000 people, where 40,000 of the residents (23.6% of the whole population in the town), are Syrians. Many Syrians have settled in Sahab because of the increased economic opportunities available for them to enter the labour market: two big Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) in the town provide promising opportunities for Syrian refugees to find work in manufacturing, for instance. Yet, even these promising opportunities come with considerable risks: Tamkeen, a legal aid organization based in Amman, has reported how QIZs do not provide a decent work environment for people who work there. Director Linda Kalash remarked, “Workers at some of the industrial zones suffer from very difficult work conditions… Most of the workers do not have copies of their contracts… violations also include verbal or physical abuse.”
Zara was the first person who came to my mind to call about her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic as she had been my first interview in the country and I remembered how kind and generous she was, welcoming us into her home with coffee as is the tradition in her culture. With two years of work in an international NGO under her belt, Zara had a keen sense of her surroundings and was always brimming with useful information about the situation of her fellow Syrians in Jordan. But I wanted to ask how the COVID-19 crisis was affecting her own personal life in particular.
When I phoned Zara, she was eager to reconnect with me but I could tell that something had gone awry from the mere intonation of her voice; my interpreter explained to me that Zara and her family had indeed recently been forced to leave their home in Sahab because they were unable to pay the rent. Zara’s husband was the only person working among the family members, and he had unfortunately lost his job due to the business closures during the COVID-19 crisis. Without enough savings, they were not able to pay the rent. Zara explained to me further: “We are six at home. Only my husband was working before the coronavirus crisis. We did not have a decent income, but we were surviving. Last week, the landlord told us to leave the house, as we could not pay the rent. We had to find another house that we could stay in. The living conditions are getting worse day by day. Our economic situation is much worse now, as all businesses are closed. We have a very limited amount of food left now. We don’t know what to do; we are just waiting until everything gets back to normal.”
While the Jordanian government has implemented the curfew and the closure of all businesses across the country as preventative measures to minimize the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public, it is clear to me that a number of inadvertent consequences have also resulted to the detriment of the lives of many refugees in the region. The efforts of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan to integrate into Jordanian society have been forestalled as a result of the stringent efforts; they have become collateral victims of the COVID-19 crisis.
It is not only the refugees living in the cities that have faced problems during the COVID-19 crisis, the refugees living in the camps have also encountered many difficulties due to crowded conditions as well as the lack of sanitation and a weak health care system. Based on UNHCR data there are 124,720 Syrians living in the camps in Jordan. On March 19, the Government of Jordan banned refugees from leaving the camps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with all entrance and exit to the camps prohibited initially until the end of April. Through my interviews with Syrian refugees, I was informed that the number of NGOs workers had also been reduced until the government removed these preventative restrictions at the end of April. At the time of writing in July 2020, entrance and exit restrictions have now been lifted.
I was interested to find out how the refugees living in the camps were faring. On the 11th of April, I spoke with Laila (38 years old), who has been living in Azraq refugee camp since 2015 with her two children. She shared an account of the conditions of her dire situation with me: “There is no toilet or bathroom in my caravan; they are shared with other people who live in the camp. Moreover, the hygiene of these facilities is problematic. They are not clean enough. I decided to try to wash myself inside my caravan.” She also discussed with me the lack of social distancing area as each caravan, her shelter space, is quite close to one other. She implored, “How can I implement social distancing during this COVID-19 crisis if I live in a caravan very close to my neighbours’ caravan?”
Omar, who has lived in the Za’atari refugee camp since 2013, shared similar concerns with me. He is of the same age (38 years old) and has five children; he indicated his worries with me earnestly: “I am afraid of someone [who lives in the camp] getting COVID-19 disease, as there are not enough doctors or clinics in the camp. If there is an emergency, we have to go to the hospital in Mafraq [a city in northern Jordan] which is far outside of the camp. One of my friends broke his arm, and we had to go to the hospital in Mafraq. If the virus gets into the camp, it would be a disaster for us.” Omar highlights the reality that refugees in the Jordanian camps are struggling to access primary care services due to the lack of doctors and clinics on site; his concerns were intensified by the thought of what might happen if the coronavirus disease infected the camp. An extensive research study implemented by the Centre for Refugee and Disaster Response at John Hopkins School of Public Health, in cooperation with the UNHCR, WHO, and the MoH of Jordan, demonstrates how displaced people struggle to access adequate health services to address their primary health needs, including treatment of chronic diseases, co-morbidities, and injuries, in part because of the inability of the Jordanian health sector to commit enough resources to serve the refugee population.
One of the popular slogans during the COVID-19 crisis, circulated by both the Jordanian government and many countries across the world, has been “stay at home”. However, this means little to those refugees who have already been forced to leave their homes once, and now feel inadequately protected by the shelters they occupy in their host country. National and international NGOs that are aware of these problems have offered emergency money and hygiene kits in an attempt to alleviate the burden of refugees; however, these efforts have not been employed efficiently, and many refugees have not been able to access such help. As a result, the poor living conditions of refugees living both in and out of the camps have only deepened during this period of intensive COVID-19 prevention efforts in Jordan.
While the closure of businesses in Jordan has largely been effective in stemming the spread of the coronavirus, it has also taken a severe toll on the socio-economic conditions of displaced people trying to survive both inside and outside the camps. If the discourse of “stay at home” is to be more than just a slogan, it is essential for all states that host refugees to make appropriate arrangements to support displaced people during the COVID-19 crisis. There are three recommendations I pose that are necessary to suitably protect the lives of refugees in Jordan. First, host countries and NGOs should act jointly to create emergency action plans. Second, just as the UNHCR is providing hygiene cash assistance, the host countries should provide cash support for refugees who cannot pay their rent to ensure nobody becomes homeless and prone to an even greater danger of exposure to COVID-19 infection. During the pandemic, providing cash support for those who have no income should not be seen as an act of generosity, but as a duty of the host country. Finally, the host countries should look to regulations based on universal human rights, including Article 25 which includes the provision of the right to adequate food, clothing, housing and medical care, to ensure the well-being of people who have been forcibly displaced is protected: we must not forget, in this trying moment for humanity, that all people deserve a decent standard of living.
Author’s note: All names were changed randomly to protect refugees’ identity.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation for the translation support and assistance during my fieldwork in Jordan. This paper would not have been possible without the help of my Jordanian family/friends. To protect their identity, I will not share any names. Thank you for welcoming me into your country. I also wish to express my indebtedness to the research participants.
Cevdet Acu is a PhD candidate in Economics at the University of Exeter. The focus of his research is on the macroeconomic influence of displaced people on receiving countries. His doctoral dissertation concerns the question of how Syrian refugees impact the labour market in host countries, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon.