Seeking Shelter in Jordan’s Cities

Housing Security and Urban Humanitarianism in the Syria Crisis

by Vicky Kelberer | published November 5, 2015

Umm Anas’ four-room apartment rings with the muffled laughter of children told to hush. Her six sons and daughters and four neighborhood children huddle around a tiny, rickety television in the otherwise unfurnished living room. Arabic-dubbed episodes of the “How to Train Your Dragon” television series play in the background while the little boys chase each other around the room with plastic toy guns. Umm Anas’ two-year old daughter clings to her mother’s skirts and watches as humanitarian workers survey the broken doors with no locks and the jagged remnants of windowpanes. The toilet behind the house is open to the rest of the complex, and the family’s water tank allows them only 20 gallons per week for seven people. The shower is in the kitchen, and with no curtain the older members of the family wash fully clothed, careful to avoid spraying water on the live electrical outlet nearby. Umm Anas is the only parent on hand most of the time; her husband works at construction sites for much of the year, returning home for a few days or weeks at a time every few months. Despite the disadvantages of this arrangement, Umm Anas is grateful that her husband has been able to find a job in the informal market, as so many others cannot.

Umm Anas is a Syrian refugee from Dar‘a living in Amman, Jordan. She is one of Jordan’s 630,000 Syrian refugees, 85 percent of whom live outside camps in towns and cities, and her home is just one of tens of thousands of substandard shelters inhabited by people like her.

The provision of a new home is so basic a humanitarian response that it is easy to forget in the face of overwhelming needs such as food and education. In refugee camps, housing is the first intervention, usually beginning with tents that evolve into shipping containers or pre-fabricated homes over time. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has erected such shelters for Syrians in the camps in Jordan. But what happens when, as with the Syrians in Jordan, most refugees dwell outside of camps and simply cannot find decent and affordable accommodations? And when the host government gives off signals that supplying better housing to urban refugees is politically unpalatable?

Shelter’s Inter-Sectoral Humanitarian Impact

Inadequate or substandard shelter is a force multiplier for every other hazard of refugee life. A refugee like Umm Anas cannot regularly prepare enough healthy food for her family if her kitchen is dangerous or unsanitary; she cannot feel safe using the toilet if it is outside; she cannot keep her home clean when it is exposed to the elements; she is more vulnerable to physical and sexual assault when several families are crowded into shared living space.

The housing crisis in Jordan was already acute before the Syrian civil war, due in part to the presence of large Palestinian and Iraqi refugee populations. Now that crisis is compounded by the arrival of over 630,000 Syrian refugees since 2011. The Syrian refugees not in camps often compete with poor Jordanians or other refugee groups for jobs and housing. Jordan needs an additional 48,230 housing units to meet the mounting demand, and many existing units are significantly below habitable standards. [1] Refugees and native Jordanians cite housing as their area of greatest concern, as well as their largest monthly expenditure.

Royal efforts to ameliorate the problem have failed. In 2005, King ‘Abdallah II kicked off the “Decent Housing for a Decent Life” campaign, which aimed to provide 100,000 new homes for low-income Jordanians over five years. The campaign ended up constructing most dwellings in rural areas far from job opportunities and the areas of greatest need. [2]

In Amman, the capital, the signs of the housing shortage are everywhere, even in the wealthiest areas. There is plenty of construction in formerly empty lots, but corruption and financial difficulties are holding up many of the projects. Jordan Gate, a grand dual-skyscraper complex that dominates the city skyline, is emblematic: Launched in 2005, the project was beset with continual safety concerns, including a crane collapse in 2009, and was indefinitely suspended. The half-completed towers loom over Amman’s horizon, the cranes motionless and silent.

Stacks of crumbling apartments lacking basic amenities fill the landscape of poorer East Amman. Most of the city’s refugees—Syrians as well as Palestinians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Sudanese—have settled here, alongside low-income Jordanians. Everyone struggles to keep up with the inflation of rents and other prices. With the population of Amman alone projected to grow to 4 million by 2025 (compared to 2.2 million in 2008), it is imperative that new housing be built—for refugees and native Jordanians alike. [3]

The Politics of Shelter

Rather than use the refugee crisis as an opportunity for housing development, the Jordanian government called a temporary halt to all urban shelter projects in early 2015. The official reason for the suspension was a routine reassessment, but even after all plans had been reapproved, the delay dragged on until July. Aid workers in the country suspect that politics was behind the six-month wait: The government does not want to imply that the Syrian refugees might be settling in Jordan for good. [4] Even as projects got back underway, humanitarian donors received a clear message not to fund shelter construction, since their budgets were eaten up by administrative costs during the suspension. With only 22 percent of assessed shelter needs in refugee and vulnerable local communities met in 2014, the projections for 2015 look even worse. [5]

The political obstacles notwithstanding, shelter is a sector that holds economic promise for Jordan. At present the UNHCR and several NGOs make cash grants to refugees and poor Jordanians for rent. The cash is a lifeline for these people, and ensures that they have a roof over their heads, however leaky. But since so little is being done to build housing or upgrade what already exists, the grants function to drive rents up for everyone. New construction, on the other hand, would provide jobs for low-income residents, both locals and refugees. And if and when Syrian refugees leave Jordan’s cities, the new and improved housing would remain, to the mutual benefit of Jordanian renters and landlords, a model of what humanitarian scholars term “development aid,” as opposed to the emergency aid of the cash grants.

A Multi-Layered Approach to Shelter

When they are permitted to operate by the government, aid agencies focus their efforts on different aspects of refugee shelter needs and housing market development. The UNHCR operates the largest cash-for-rent assistance program and facilitates the Shelter Working Group, a collaborative body of humanitarian organizations and government ministries that work on housing. According to the 2015 shelter response plan, the UNHCR was to undertake national housing policy reform along with the government, but the six-month suspension truncated that vision. The Shelter Working Group is now writing the 2016 plan, a less ambitious document that makes no provision for construction of new units. [6] In the meantime, the UNHCR doles out the funding it receives from donors and coordinates the work of various international and community-based NGOs.

NGOs in towns and cities focus on five forms of intervention laid out in the 2015 plan: cash-for-rent aid, upgrading, construction of new units, winterization of existing homes, and housing and property rights legal education. Besides the UNHCR, the International Catholic Migration Commission and Caritas are the primary distributors of cash for rent.

Shelter upgrading is central to the plans of the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Jordan Health Aid Society, Medair, the Lutheran World Federation and Première Urgence-Aid Médicale Internationale (PU-AMI). The six-month suspension, however, crippled most of the upgrading operations and only three of these agencies have secured funding earmarked for the home improvements through December.

A less intensive form of upgrading comes in the form of winterization or “sealing-off” kits. These kits enable refugee families to seal the cracks in windows, doors and walls pending more permanent fixes. Another crucial stopgap measure for the cold, wet winter is WASH kits (water, sanitation and hygiene). PU-AMI wants to supply refugees with 5,000 of these kits by the end of 2015, a goal unlikely to be met with funding available for only 1,000 kits as of June. [7]

Another important task for the NGOs is to educate Syrian refugees and Jordanian landlords and renters about their legal rights and duties. The workshops, pamphlets and community meetings aimed at such education were some of the only activities allowed to continue under the suspension. Individual and mass evictions of refugees have occurred throughout Jordan since 2011, and NGOs are seeking to mitigate the problem. Legal recourse is limited, however.

In ‘Ajloun, Jarash and Irbid, the Norwegian Refugee Council has also worked with landlords to complete unfinished housing units and bring them up to habitable standards in return for a rent-free lease of 12-18 months for Syrian refugees. The dwellings add to Jordan’s housing stock while increasing property values and income-generating opportunities for landlords in the future, and a June report found that Syrian families in rent-free accommodations resort much less often to negative coping mechanisms such as child labor or eating less to save money. [8] The meticulous renter-landlord matching process adopted by the Council, after initial tests that showed this relationship is key to the program, means that many landlords choose to continue renting to the Syrian refugees in their new units even after the lease has expired. Leases are overseen by the Council, which also signs contracts with the landlords, doubly legally binding them to continue to host their refugee tenants. The Council reports that unfinished units would have taken five years or more to complete had landlords not been granted Council funding, and many landlords expressed a humanitarian desire to participate in the program, as well as an economic one. [9]

Hope for Housing?

Housing, nonetheless, continues to take a back seat to other interventions in the urban refugee crisis in Jordan. The six-month suspension showed plainly that housing for urban refugees is not the government’s priority, and that the government would like aid agencies to train their attention elsewhere as well. Yet no amount of food and other emergency aid can stabilize the lives of refugees who lack a proper place to live.

Even with the suspension lifted, funds from the international community have not been forthcoming, and life for refugees in Jordanian cities has become more and more untenable. In September, World Food Program cuts left 229,000 Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan without food vouchers. Unable to work or get aid, more Syrians are now leaving Jordan—many to return to war-torn Syria—than arriving. [10] As the world’s attention shifts to the so-called migration crisis in Europe, humanitarian agencies find themselves bereft of the resources to make life bearable in the host countries bearing the brunt of the costs of the Syrian refugee crisis in the region. As agencies strain to meet the most basic of urban refugee needs, it is unlikely that housing will assume its rightful prominence.

Despite the enormous challenges of funding and politics before them, humanitarian workers in Jordan express cautious optimism that the housing problems for Syrian refugees in urban areas can be solved. A staffer who spent most of his career in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon considers his work in Jordan “relatively simple. At least the Syrians have a home to return to in theory.” In Jordan, everything is relative, even—maybe especially—humanitarian crises.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article said that Medair was also supplying WASH kits toward the end of 2015. According to a spokeswoman, Medair stooped supplying those kits in March 2015. We regret the error.

Endnotes

[1] Norwegian Refugee Council, In Search of a Home: Access to Adequate Housing in Jordan (Amman, June 2015).
[2] See Myriam Ababsa, "Social Disparities and Public Policies in Amman," in Myriam Ababsa and Rami Daher, eds., Cities, Urban Practices and Nation Building in Jordan (Beirut: Presses De L’Ifpo, 2011).
[3] Robert A. Beauregard and Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, “More than a Master Plan: Amman 2025,” Cities 28/1 (2011).
[4] Author interviews, June 2015.
[5] Jordan Response Plan 2015.
[6] UNHCR Shelter Working Group Meeting Minutes, September 3, 2015.
[7] UNHCR Shelter Work Plan, June 2015.
[8] Norwegian Refugee Council, In Search of a Home.
[9] Author interviews, June 2015.
[10]PBS Newshour,” October 12, 2015.

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