Jordan’s decision to waive visa fines on illegal Iraqi residents to encourage them to return home is having a limited impact in terms of boosting the number of returnees, according to Jordanian officials and activists.
[Read this report in Arabic]
Last week Jordan granted illegal Iraqi residents the chance to rectify their legal status by waiving visa fines for those who wish to return home, and reducing by 50 percent visa fines for those who wish to remain in the kingdom.
Figures released by the Jordanian government this week show that hosting Iraqis has cost the kingdom nearly US$1.6 billion, mainly in terms of education and health. There is no independent verification of the claim.
Interior Minister Eid Fayez said Iraqi migrants could go to immigration departments from 17 February-17 March to take advantage of the amnesty. After the expiry of the deadline, those who failed to report to the immigration authorities will have to pay visa violation fines and forfeit the 50 percent discount.
"Those who wish to return to Iraq will not be fined and I have informed officers at the borders not to stamp passports with “Not Allowed to Enter Jordan”, said Fayez.
Normally, Iraqis who overstay their visa and do not pay fines are banned from returning to Jordan. Immigration laws stipulate that anyone who overstays is fined 1.5 Jordanian dinars [about US$2] per day.
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Four days into the new rules, only a few dozen Iraqis gathered outside the Interior Ministry and relevant immigration offices, to take advantage of the grace period.
Shankal Qader, president of the Jordanian-Iraqi Brotherhood Association, said most Iraqis preferred to pay half the fines rather than return home due to insecurity. "The situation in Iraq does not encourage Iraqis to leave Jordan yet," she told IRIN.
Abul Sattar Mahmoud, a 35-year-old Iraqi from Anbar, said he was trying to take advantage of the 50 percent waiver: "I have nothing left in Iraq. My family is all here. I would be a fool to return and risk my life," Mahmoud told IRIN as he patiently waited in a queue outside the immigration department in Amman.
"What would I do in Iraq? My house was ransacked. I will not be able to live peacefully with the gangs and militias ruling our cities," said Omar Hadithi, a former school teacher in Baghdad, who arrived in Jordan three years ago.
“Situation has improved” - Iraqi ambassador
Iraq's ambassador to Jordan, Saad Hayani said the government in Baghdad was willing to assist Iraqis who wish to return home.
"The situation has improved in Iraq and we are ready to give any kind of help to those who wish to return," Hayani told IRIN.
That assessment, however, was not shared by the UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres who said on 17 February: "We have clear criteria for the promotion of returns - those criteria are not met by the situation in Iraq now."
Many of the poorest in the Iraqi community did not have a valid residence permit. At least 400,000 were staying illegally, according to the Ministry of Interior.
This is not the first time that Jordan has decided to exempt Iraqis from paying fines to persuade them to return home. The last time such a decision was taken was in December 2005.
Activists said they were concerned that waiving the fines would lead poor Iraqis to risk their lives.
“Most Iraqi refugees face enormous financial pressures, and World Vision welcomes this announcement of abolishing the fines [as it] brings much needed relief to many families,” said Tracey Hunter, World Vision’s Jordan programme director, in a statement. “But many of those Iraqis who remain in Jordan continue to face the threat of fines which they simply cannot pay, and there is a risk that this initiative will encourage families to return to Iraq before it is safe to do so.”