In Syria, Trump travel ban case is being watched closely
AMMAN, Jordan — The Trump administration’s travel ban and cuts to foreign aid are being keenly felt in Jordan by Syrian refugees, many of whom have been in limbo for years as they’ve sought to resettle in the United States.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on President Trump’s travel ban this week as it completes its term. The case brought by the state of Hawaii questions whether the ban was based in part on anti-Muslim prejudice.
The decision will be closely watched not only in Washington but around the world — including in Amman, where the president of a group working with Syrian refugees describes today’s climate as a “perilous time.”
“Originally I was told I had a 50/50 chance,” said Mohammed, who lives in Azraq, Jordan, with his wife and five children. Interviews with refugees, who are identified here by first names in order to avoid impacting their resettlement applications, were facilitated and translated by the humanitarian organization CARE USA.
“Then Uncle Trump took the lead and he’s prevented six countries, including Syrian refugees, from entering the country and ever since then it’s been very difficult,” he continued.
A row of homes in the Azraq, Jordan refugee camp. This fenced-in community holds about 40,000 Syrian refugees and it’s growing. pic.twitter.com/6KwPehq9YR
— Alicia M. Cohn (@aliciacohn) June 21, 2018
Trump’s executive order restricts entry to the U.S. from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Refugees are strictly vetted as a result of the ban, which the Supreme Court allowed to take effect while it’s still being challenged in lower court.
Because of the ban, the U.S. has admitted only 13 refugees from Syria so far in 2018, according to the State Department.
Experts in the region say that, beyond the travel ban, cuts to aid have hurt refugees in places like Jordan.
“It’s not only that we’re cutting off our own [refugee] intake, it’s that we’re cutting off aid in the region,” said Michelle Nunn, the president and CEO of CARE USA, a nongovernment organization that has been offering international aid for 70 years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced this month that it needs $274.9 million to assist Syrian refugees in Jordan for 2018. As of February, the international body had only received commitments up to $17.8 million — 6 percent of its funding needs. As part of that shortfall, the United Nations did not receive the pledges it usually does at a voluntary annual pledging conference in April. The U.S. did not submit a pledge; last year, the U.S. pledged $125 million at the same conference.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, last year defended the president’s planned cuts to international aid by calling it trimming the “fat around the edges.”
But Nunn said the cuts have dramatically changed its work.
“This has been the first time we’ve seen that [U.S. relief commitment] really challenged at a fundamental level,” she told The Hill. Thirty percent of CARE’s funding comes from the U.S. government. Since 2012, CARE has provided aid to about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Jordan.
“The U.S. can make the argument we’re still a humanitarian leader,” she added. “[But] it’s hard to tell middle- or lower-income countries they should bear the burden for refugees when we’re not doing it. … Jordanians could quite compellingly say they’ve done more than their fair share.”
Syrians, who represent a quarter of the world’s refugees, are nearly 15 percent of Jordan’s population.
The United Nations estimates there are 657,628 Syrian refugees in Jordan, but the Jordanian government estimates more than a million. Syrian refugees represent what King Abdullah II has called a “tremendous burden on our country.”
They also represent a complication for U.S. foreign policy, because Jordan is a historic ally in a region where Trump is about to unveil his Middle East peace plan. Trump and senior staff have been meeting with leaders from the region, in part to discuss the plan. Abdullah is visiting Trump in the White House on Monday.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but has repeatedly said it put the ban in place to protect U.S. security.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert last year defended the travel ban by saying there could be “concerns” about some of the countries listed.
“And the American public could have legitimate concerns about their safety when we open our doors,” she said. “And we want to open our doors to people who are willing to go through proper screening measures and who want to be here and want to be productive members of our society.”
People who spoke to The Hill said they did not believe Jordan’s government could do much more in terms of the Syrian refugees within its borders.
“Jordan has done a lot for so many nationalities and refugees, but Jordan is stretched to the maximum. There is stress on schools and infrastructure,” said Tayseer, a Syrian who lives below the poverty line in the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp with five children and a sixth on the way.
Homes in Baqa’a, a community where more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees (and some Syrian refugees) live, the majority under the poverty line. It started as a group of tents in 1968 and is now the largest camp in Jordan. pic.twitter.com/qNfXEWYAxD
— Alicia M. Cohn (@aliciacohn) June 21, 2018
His oldest son has to work rather than go to school in order to support the family. He makes as little as 1 Jordanian dinar ($1.41) a day. The family cannot avoid dependence on aid from the UNHCR and organizations like CARE.
“I will not lie, I wish we could go to a different country. It’s not easy to maintain a decent life here,” he said. “The government of Jordan treats us very well but there is a lot of pressure on the country itself.”
Tayseer says his resettlement application was rejected by UNHCR when they found out that he previously did work for Bashar Assad’s government as a fireman. But his family cannot go back to Syria because he would be considered a deserter.
Abdullah has consistently stated his goal is to send the Syrian refugees back to their country — although the crisis, which began in 2011, is ongoing.
The U.S. remains the top choice of resettlement for most Syrians that The Hill interviewed in Jordan. But many have switched their application attempts to other countries such as the United Kingdom or Germany.
“We keep hearing our file is being considered. We just have to wait,” said Fareeha, who lives in east Amman and runs a catering business out of her kitchen. Two of her children have migrated from Jordan — one is a lab technician in Germany and the other is studying on scholarship in Turkey.
“My friends and others encourage us to be displaced to a third country, like the U.S. or Canada or Germany, because they say they are living a better life there. They tell me, ‘come and see how you are treated like a human being.’ They encourage me even though I’ve heard that living in a Western country is not easy,” Tayseer said.
Mohammed, who lost a leg to shrapnel in Syria, considers himself lucky: He lives in a town just outside the Azraq refugee camp, rather than in it, and he is able to work in a coffee shop near his home because his son can help him do the more mobile parts of his job. Asked what he wanted from America, Mohammed did not ask for aid.
“I know you cannot do this, but just bring back peace to Syria,” he said.