20 July, 2016
On 4 June 2016, I, along with three other solicitors and a member of Oxfam's team, embarked on a fact-finding mission to Jordan as part of a Lawyers Against Poverty (LAP) delegation - LAP are a membership network of lawyers who are passionate about fighting the injustice of poverty. The purpose of the trip was to visit Zaatari refugee camp and meet with Oxfam Jordan to ascertain what we could do to assist in combating the challenges they are facing, specifically with reference the Syrian refugee crisis.
The challenges Jordan is facing as a country are astounding. In a country with around 7 million citizens, it is estimated there are somewhere between 700,000 (UNHCR official figures) and 1.3million (govt. of Jordan figures) Syrian refugees. That means that approximately one in every eight people is a Syrian refugee (and even this excludes the tens of thousands of people who are trapped in a 'no-mans' land' between the Syrian and Jordanian borders).
Many are housed in huge refugee camps, such as those at Azraq and Zaatari. Zaatari has been in-situ since 2012, houses around 70,000 refugees and is approximately 5km2 - in short, it is as massive as it is dense. Strictly, other than those hired on UNHCR's "Cash for Work" scheme, the inhabitants of the camp aren't permitted to own businesses or have jobs but one of the main streets through the camp (the "Champs-Élysées") is a sea of market stalls from which one could buy literally anything from crisps through to dishwashers. As well as picking up one of the best (and cheapest) falafel wraps I've ever had!
We then met with Oxfam's camp protection officer who painted a bleak picture of life in a refugee camp. We heard tales of girls being forced into 'youth marriages' (some as young as 9) and then suffering the most appalling abuse at the hands of their husbands as well as details of 'honour killings' and rapes - all of which are illegal in Jordan (although at present the 'punishment' for rape is that the guilty party is forced to marry his victim). Further, the vast majority of boys over 12 aren't getting an education as, when they do go to school, they are often brutally beaten by their teachers.
Not only is it often punishingly hot (36 degrees on the day we visited) but the camp is excruciatingly close to the Syrian border - on a clear day, you can see the Syrian mountains. In fact, you can be in Syria in an hour. This is a trip almost 20,000 people have made since September 2015 - we saw people in their hundreds queuing to board the free bus provided by UNHCR.
Surprisingly, almost 80% of Syrian refugees live outside of the camps in the 'host community' where, sadly, life is not much brighter. As Jordan hasn't signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, officially they are not required to protect anyone claiming asylum and therefore the legal status of many Syrians is unclear. As a result, they face a very real risk of deportation. Due to restrictions on registering marriages and births put in place by the Jordanian government, many children born in Jordan are stateless and therefore will meet difficulties accessing work, education, state support, the legal system and many other vital institutions.
On the third day of our trip we got to meet with Oxfam and their local partners who are, amongst other things, working hard to improve the Jordanian water infrastructure and on 'social cohesion programs' which aim to ease tensions between Jordanians and incoming Syrians. One of Oxfam's local partners are the Arab Renaissance for Democracy & Development (ARDD), a legal aid agency founded in 2008, are supporting some of Jordan's most vulnerable via consultations, awareness sessions, psychological support and support in obtaining legal documents. Their lawyers have an incredibly in-depth knowledge of the law surrounding refugees and asylum seekers as well as worker's rights and are seeing a slow increase in engagement in a legal system which is often very exclusive.
Overall, the trip was eye-opening and at times pretty harrowing. That said, the work that Oxfam and their local partners (as well as the UNHCR and all the other non-government organisations in Zaatari) are doing is heartening and incredibly inspiring - I'm looking forward to working with Lawyers Against Poverty to further nurture the relationships we forged in Jordan and, hopefully, assist the work being done there from afar!
There is going to be a full report available on the Lawyers Against Poverty website in the next few weeks - in the meantime, I am happy to field any questions!
Lawyers Against Poverty's vision is "to build a community of lawyers from developed and developing communities across the globe who use access to justice to relieve poverty." At present they have various working groups relating to refugee issues, land rights, women's rights and many others. Their 'Justice Fund' is currently funding strategic litigation on behalf of a victim of domestic abuse in Nigeria.
James is a solicitor in the Housing and Regeneration (Property) Department at Forbes Solicitors