Thousands face jail as Jordan heads to lift moratorium on debt imprisonment

Thousands face jail as Jordan heads to lift moratorium on debt imprisonment
Jordan suspended the practice of jailing indebted persons during the Covid-19 pandemic. But tens of thousands of Jordanians could go to jail once the moratorium is lifted next month.
2 min read
08 May, 2022
[Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty]

A human rights watchdog on Sunday called on Jordan to end debt imprisonment, weeks before the expiration of a moratorium on the practice. 

“By permitting imprisonment for debts, Jordan puts tens of thousands at risk of being sent to prison not for any crime, but for taking out loans to cover essentials like rent, food, or medical treatment,” Sara Kayyali, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

Jordan is among a handful of countries worldwide in which people can be imprisoned if they cannot pay back their debts. 

In March 2021, then in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic , Jordanian authorities issued a one-year moratorium on arresting people for failure to repay debts, but the measure is set to expire next month. Tens of thousands of Jordanians could face jail time for their debts: as of April 1, at least 148,000 people were wanted to serve prison terms for unpaid debts.

Jordan is marred by growing poverty. Unemployment rates reached a staggering 25 percent in Jordan at the beginning of 2021, with 50 percent among youth. The unemployment rate among women was significantly higher than among men, with about a third of the female labour force unemployed.

Without adequate social security, thousands of residents of Jordan - including non-citizen, impoverished Palestinian and Syrian refugees - have to take out loans to survive. 

Jordanian authorities are in the process of revising the law allowing debt imprisonment through draft amendments that would prohibit debt imprisonment for any amount less than 5,000 JDs ($7,052), prohibit jailing both members of an indebted married couple at the same time, and cap the amount of prison time at 60 days per debt, not to exceed 120 days in all.

While the amendments are a "significant improvement" for human rights activists, "imprisonment for debt is a clear violation of international human rights obligations, and Jordan should end the practice immediately," Human Rights Watch said.