'Little Iraq' emerges in neighbouring Jordan

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have sought safe haven from the violence at home in neighbouring Jordan, where the influx of migrants has triggered concerns over inflation and job losses.

In a tiny desert kingdom still healing from a 2005 triple suicide attack on Amman hotels, which killed 60 people and was blamed on Iraqi al-Qaeda militants, the trend is viewed in some quarters as a burden, albeit a cautiously welcomed one.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said more than 700 000 Iraqis fled to Jordan in the aftermath of the United States-led 2003 war, while independent analysts put their numbers at over one million and Jordanian authorities estimate about 500 000.

Some are rich and influential and others are poor; and they come from a mix of Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian families.

Many of Amman’s Iraqis have settled in the up-market neighbourhoods of Rabiya and Khalda, which taxi drivers have jokingly renamed Karrada and Jadriya—two Baghdad residential areas.

Once-sleepy neighbourhoods have come alive thanks to restaurants serving tasty Iraqi meals such as the Masguf fish and the so-called “Fallujah” meat kebabs, as well as night clubs featuring Iraqi singers and belly dancers.

Amman’s shopping destination, the mammoth “Mecca Mall”, has also been overrun by the Iraqis who have baptised it “Baghdad Mall”.

“We come here to shop but also to meet Iraqi friends we had lost touch with,” said Iraqi national Tareq Hassouneh.

Many Iraqi artists have also set up their ateliers in Jordan and hold shows in Iraqi-run galleries, such as Sirwan Aref, a 39-year-old Kurd who used to teach at the Baghdad University faculty of arts.

“The violence in Iraq means there is no space left for art,” he said.

Another professor at Baghdad University, Mohammed Abdullah, is one of thousands planning to leave Iraq and head to Jordan.

“I want to escape Iraq,” Abdullah said in Baghdad. “I have been offered a teacher’s job in Jordan. I am going.
I just hope there are no serious problems when entering Jordan. That is my only worry.”

He added that he will first go alone to the neighbouring country and then send for his wife and two kids.

“I am scared of the situation here. I am being threatened by the militias. I am sure at least in Jordan I will not face such troubles.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II said this month that the influx of Iraqis has put “pressure on infrastructure” and meagre resources of the desert kingdom, though they were welcome as long as they abide by the law.

“Everyone who lives on Jordanian soil must abide by Jordanian laws and preserve its security and stability, including our Iraqi brothers,” the king said.

“We will never allow Jordan to be used as a staging post to foment any problems against Iraq,” he added.

Most of the Iraqis in Jordan have set up home in the capital Amman, where the population has doubled from one million in 2003 and where the cost of real estate has soared three-fold since 2005.

As a result many middle-class Jordanians have moved to the suburbs to find cheaper homes.

“They have created a community within a community. We’ve got now a ‘little Iraq’ in Jordan and this is a cause of concern in the long run,” said one economist who works for a Jordanian research centre.

Many Jordanians who at first believed that the arrival of wealthy Iraqis among them would revitalise the economy, are now complaining that their neighbours have pushed up inflation.

“The Iraqis live in ghettos and have done little to invest in the country, beyond purchasing homes or opening business, such as restaurants, where they only hire Iraqis,” said the economist, who declined to be named.

“They have contributed to inflation and rarely mix with Jordanians. This cannot be healthy.”

Jordanian civil servant Abdel Rahman echoes him.

“I had plans to buy a small apartment in 2005 but by the time I secured a loan from the bank, the owner told me that the price had risen from $35 000 to $115 000,” he told said.

A Jordanian trade unionist also complained that Iraqis are slowly pushing Jordanians from the job market. “Thousands of Iraqis work illegally, accepting lower pay than the Jordanians who are becoming unemployed,” he said.

Jordanian car mechanic Izzat said his boss threatened to fire him and replace him with an Iraqi when he asked for time off.

But Jordanian officials have taken care to downplay the complaints.

“The presence of the Iraqis in Jordan is, of course, a burden on national resources—although I don’t like to use that word—but they are welcome here,” government spokesperson Nasser Jawdeh said this week.

Jawdeh also denied that Jordan had closed its borders to some Iraqis, but acknowledged that “people coming to this country are vetted more thoroughly and carefully given the security concerns that we all face in this world today”.

According to UN forecasts, the outpouring of refugees from Iraq shows no sign of letting up.—AFP

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