Interview with Dominik Bartsch UNHCR representative in Jordan
Questions by Agyaed Abo Zayed.
Interviewer Daoud Kuttab
Q: We want to start with the question of UNHCR’s finances. How are you doing in this area? Are you experiencing any deficits?
A: Overall we are a little bit concerned but we are not worried. Some of the agencies receiving humanitarian funding have had interruptions in funding but at UNHCR, our funding remains steady. Last year there was an announcement about reducing food assistance by WFP. These were early warning signs. hope that the big donors, the international donors, will continue to support the budget.
We had a month ago the Brussels conference and it included the pledges by countries for refugees. Early indications that they are supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan at the same levels as last year.
Q: You are saying that your budget is basically covered but that does not include the inflationary rise in prices.
A: You are right about this. In a way there are a number of economic challenges that refugees have gone through. We had COVID-19 and then the increase in prices such as fuel prices and some families are now experiencing a 155% increase in their electricity bills.
This means that many refugee families are being forced to cut on basic needs because of the rise in prices. What we are afraid is that these families are experiencing what we call negative coping mechanisms. What we mean by that is that some families realize that they don’t have enough money for three meals a day so they cut back to two meals a day which has an impact on the nutrition of the family. Others resort to pulling their children out of school.
All this means is that we have an increasingly urgent situation to deal with. Part of this situation is the need to double support and to communicate that to donors to help affected families.
Q: The Jordanian government created a mechanism for Jordanians to get subsidized on their electric bill, but this subsidiy does not apply to Syrian refugees. So does UNHCR try to chip in or do you try to solve this problem in a different way?
A: When the reform of the electricity sector was discussed between the IMF and the Jordanian government it was primarily focused on trying to level the field regarding different tariffs that were available to private sector. At the time no one understood that there was a single sector basically non-Jordanians who previously benefited from the subsidy who would subsequently not be included to get a subsidy. This was a shock to the refugees as well as to the may agencies supporting them.
So, when we discussed this issue with the government, they agreed to extend this subsidy for six months and only to 25% of the most vulnerable refugees.
Q: When does the subsidy run out?
A: It runs out in September. But remember that currently it only applies to 25% of the most vulnerable refugee families. The situation will become more serious in September, just before winter, when this subsidy runs out.
Currently though over 75% of the refugees are not receiving any subsidy. Their electricity bills have already increased in price. As far as we are concerned, the way forward is to identify those who are most vulnerable, both refugees and Jordanians, and then create mechanisms to support them to pay their bills.
Q: What are the criteria?
A: Ideally it would be a determination of how poor the household is regardless of who the persons are. This will allow us to provide the limited resources to those who are the most vulnerable.
Q: Health is a complicated issue. We are receiving complains that some refugees with cancer or dialysis face interruptions in these medical services from some of the hospitals. So, what is the health scene like. Give us a view of the medical situation for Syrian refugees.
A: Let me start with the good news which fills us with pride and makes Jordan a shining example among the countries helping refugees. Jordan has allowed access of refugees to the national medical system at the level of non-insured Jordanians.
There are of course different levels of health care with cases that are primary health cases and there are cased that need to be referred to secondary and tertiary institutions and this is where it gets complicated.
We have limited amount of funding that we can use for those cases and we have to make really painful decisions. How can we justify that we have funding for this dialysis case but not for this cancer case? We have dedicated health professionals that are trying to make that determination, but it is extremely painful we are dealing with people who urgently need medical health services.
As to your question there are a number of hospitals who provide subsidized health services for refugees on a private basis. But in this case sometimes they are erratic because they are unable to provide this medical service continuously.
Q: What about some of the other types of cases like Autistic kids how do you deal with those cases?
A: The number of children with special needs among the refugee population is generally the same as that of the Jordanian population around 11-13%.
But here there is one important distinction. Whereas children in urban areas have access to government facilities, in refugee camps there are some organizations that provide dedicated staff to support the needs of children.
In general though, we want to be sure that the level of care that is provided to refugees reaches the same standards as Jordanians.
Q: Are you saying that there is better care in the camps than outside the camps?
A: In some cases, yes. For some of these cases that require special care and support mechanism there are better facilities that provide that support.
Q: In the education area there are studies that monitor that the level of education has dropped. Do you have similar results as to the educational level of refugees?
A: We have unfortunately seen the same results and this is what keeps me awake at night. How can we help these cases, how can we help parents who make the difficult decision to take their kids out of school to work?
What we also need to find are ways to help those brilliant students who have excellent tawjihi results to find a way to pursue their university studies. And more importantly, after that to find a job.
I find this one of the most powerful messages we can give to refugees. The message that, if I give encouragement to my child and I find a way for them to follow up on their studies, that there is a way that he or she can progress and have a better life.
This is a message that we want to give to refugees living both in urban areas as well as in the camps.
Q: You have a limited number of scholarships. How many refugees benefit from that and how much is available?
A: We have famous scholarship program called DAFI which currently benefits approximately two hundred refugee students to go to university in Jordan. This is a small number, we realize it is a drop in the ocean, but I wanted it is an attempt to offer some opportunities to refugee students.
Also, there are other programs providing scholarships some here in Jordan and some allowing bright students to study in different countries abroad. We hope that more opportunities are made available.
What really impresses me, time and time again, is that refugees are not waiting for someone else to help them. I have been impressed by the many Syrian refugees who have been able to obtain scholarship on their own. They have initiative. They get the scholarships because they pride education, and they study hard, and this is impressive because it shows that there is a community that works hard and wants to provide for their own families.
Q: What is happening on the level of return of refugees and resettlement issues
A: On the issue of the return, it is small and limited. With COVID-19, return totally stopped because of the border closure and it is only just starting slowly again.
We do a lot of studies asking refugees what they think about return. The vast majority say we want to go back but when we ask the same question about whether they are willing to go back in the next 12 months, the vast majority of people say they are not able to go back. So, there is a clear dichotomy of refugees saying yes, we want to go back but the conditions have to be right.
Q: What about third party re location
A: We call this resettlement when a third country, say Canada, offers to take some refugees. Last year 5,000 were accepted to go to different countries. We are hoping that more opportunities become available, as there are tens of thousands of refugees that need to be resettled based on their vulnerabilty but there are few places available.
Q: UHCR provides support to all refugees (except Palestinians) what are the biggest challenges?
A: In Jordan, the rights available to Syrians are not extended to other refugees. Refugees of non-Syrian nationalities, for example, are not allowed to work and this creates some issues.
Let us say a person comes from Yemen to Jordan for work or medical reason. Initially he may have had a proper work permit or be on a medical visa, but eventually when this expires and conflict has broken out in his home country, he cannot get back.
How should we addresses these sorts of cases in Jordan? In UNHCR’s opinion, all nationalities of individuals should be able to present asylum claims. We then assess these asylum claims to see if they are refugees under the legal definition. Not everyone will be found to be a refugee. Refugee status is not automatic. But there is a need to be able to assess their asylum claims. At the moment, we have a continuous discussion with the Jordanian Government about this issue, to discuss the status of individuals whose lives might be in danger if they return.
Q: What countries are they from?
A: In addition to Yemen, we individuals from Sudan and Somalia and smaller numbers from other countries. They are here because of the difficulties that they are facing in their country of origin.
Q: Do you have any last words?
A: I want to direct a special message to all refugees in Jordan. Many of you hear information about UNHCR, about opportunities that suggest maybe you can go travel abroad, to Belarus or other countries, this information is often not correct.
Please check with us. It is important to note that all UNHCR services are free.