Jordan's Covid-19 outbreak sees refugee families struggling to survive

Jordan's Covid-19 outbreak sees refugee families struggling to survive
Jordan has witnessed a massive increase in Covid-19 cases.
4 min read
11 November, 2020
Many Syrian refugees live in the northern Jordanian camp of Zaatari [Getty]
Once hailed as one of the world's few success stories in handling the Covid-19 epidemic, Jordan is now reeling from an explosion in new cases with a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of refugee families residing in the kingdom.

Coronavirus cases in Jordan now stand at over 120,000 with numbers increasing sharply each week. Action taken by the government to tackle the crisis has seen travel restrictions and some businesses closed, making it increasingly difficult for Jordan's 745,000 refugees - mostly Syrians - to find work.

With the epidemic now at large in Jordan, many are struggling to cover basic necessities such as food, fuel and living accommodation.

Since March, when Jordan reported its first coronavirus case, over 60 percent of the calls the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has received have been from refugees seeking assistance.

The group has seen a ten-fold increase in appeals for help since the same period last year, highlighting that the scale of suffering among refugees in Jordan is now immense.

A fear of the disease and new restrictions have seen refugees lose lifeline work to support their families.

"I used to support my family by working as a daily waged housemaid, even though I was pregnant and have a two-year-old child. But now, unfortunately - with the current accessibility limitations and the people's fear of the coronavirus - I'm no longer able to do this kind of work," one 19-year-old Syrian refugee told the organisation.

"Now I have no income and I'm responsible for feeding my child and caring for my paralysed husband. I'm in real need of financial assistance."

Another 22-year-old Syrian refugee in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid also explained how her family had suffered since work dried up.

"I'm a mother of three children. My husband has a severe war injury in his legs so he can't walk or move. I used to sell my home-cooked food, and that helped me pay the rent, bills and food expenses, but that all stopped and I'm no longer able to make any money to even feed my family," she said.

"It wasn't possible to pay the rent and as a result of that the owner forced us to leave and we are currently staying in a small room at a relative's house. It is unbearable."

The IRC has witnessed a record number of calls for support over the past months. Dire conditions have led parents to pull their children from school to work and at least one father has been forced to scour through bins to feed his family.

The organisation is seeking additional funding and support to help cope with the growing number of people needing direct cash assistance to survive.

"Although the [Jordanian] government took swift action to prevent the spread of the virus and to strengthen Jordan's health system at the start of the pandemic, this sadly took its toll on the most vulnerable. Businesses were forced to close and people lost their jobs," said Sarra Ghazi, the IRC's Country Director in Jordan.

"Without a source of income, meeting their basic needs became a daily struggle. By July this year we had already received more calls to our hotline than we did for the whole of 2019, and each week we hear of people in ever-more desperate circumstances."

Nearly three-quarters of the calls the IRC has received over the past two weeks have been requests for direct cash assistance to cover necessities such as food. Others fear eviction from their homes due to arrears in rent.

"We have been able to support the most vulnerable with emergency cash assistance and are providing start-up grants to enable those with home-based business ideas to get them off the ground, but the needs are vast," Ghazi said.

"Although the lockdown measures eased towards the end of June, the number of calls we are receiving for economic support continues to rise - even though we are now four months down the line."

One long-term solution to the problem is for the government to re-address restrictions that prevent refugees from accessing work, the IRC said.

Another route is to encourage opportunities for entrepreneurship through cash grants, which could stimulate job and wealth creation, as well as ending refugees' reliance on handouts.

"This will help people not only through the current crisis, but far into the future as well, as refugees will become self-reliant and their hard work will contribute towards boosting Jordan's recovering economy," said Ghazi.

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