Somalis and Yemenis of mixed origin stranded and struggling in Jordan’s capital

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been an important migration hub in the Middle East for decades. However, while it is perhaps most known for its reception of millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians, there have also been 14,727 Yemenis and 746 Somali nationals who registered with UNHCR and sought refuge in the Kingdom, and its capital Amman in particular. An estimated 30% of the 4 million people living in Amman are foreign nationals. This article focuses on Yemenis and Somalis and more specifically on those of mixed origin who have settled in Jabal Amman, a densely populated urban area in central Amman. Marginalised at a national policy level with limited access to protection, rights and services, the Yemeni-Somali communities also face challenges in their daily social interactions with Jordanians, as well as those from their own country of origin.

This article builds upon MMC’s previous work on displaced minorities in Jordan and recently conducted ethnographic research and semi-structured interviews with ten Jordanians and 20 Somali and 20 Yemeni refugees and migrants. The interviews took place from January to June 2019 and from May 2020 to June 2020. Among other things, we briefly describe the mixed migration background of Somali and Yemeni communities, their access to international protection, and their day-to-day social interactions and challenges in Jordan.

Mixed migration of the Somalis and Yemenis in Jordan

The majority of the Somali and Yemeni refugees and migrants have come Jordan during the past ten years because of the relative stability of the country and perceived ease of access to international protection. For example, most Yemenis, and Somalis with Yemeni passports, entered Jordan with a visa on arrival. Many now wish to be recognized as refugees, gain access to aid and resettlement in a third country such as the United States, Canada, or Australia. With that intention in mind, Amman is a transit city in their mixed migration journey. If not through air travel, the Somali migration journey is reportedly more complicated with multiple cross border movements through countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Prior to the Syria conflict, there were also Somalis traveling to Syria to reach UNHCR’s office in Damascus and gain access to asylum and international protection. However, due to the Syria crisis from 2011 onward, some of them joined Syrians fleeing to Jordan where they have not been treated in the same manner as Syrians. This has also been the case for Yemenis who arrived in Jordan after the conflict started in Yemen in 2015. Whereas Syrians have been granted prima facie “refugee” status in Jordan, refugees with other nationalities had to undertake status determination through UNHCR.[1] However, in January 2019 the Cabinet decided to suspend UNHCR registration and the issuance of documents to those who legally entered the country for medical treatment, study, tourism, or work. In effect, this has barred non-Syrians – including the majority of Yemenis and Somalis – from being recognized as refugees. It also leaves them without UNHCR documentation or access to services. Simply put, these minority communities are regarded as “economic migrants”, and not refugees in need for international protection, which tends to disregard the complexities around their mixed migration drivers, decisions, and movements. Jordan’s country of origin approach to refugee protection, and its non-ratification of the Refugee Convention, is also reflected in Jordan’s institutional refugee response framework (e.g. the Jordan Response Plan) which was developed as a response to the influx of Syrians but did not address the specific needs of the non-Syrian populations. The prioritisation of Syrians is also reflected in other instruments and agreements, such as the 2016 EU-Jordan Compact.

A more nuanced look at the “non-Syrians” and their integration challenges

There have been attempts to raise awareness on the plight of other refugee and migrant communities but these struggle to do justice to the differences among and within these communities and end up putting all of them into one category as “non-Syrians“, “others” or “refugees from countries other than Syria”. While this may help understand and raise their concerns, it does not incorporate the communities within an approach that targets all asylum seekers in a dignified and equal manner. At the same time, a more in-depth understanding of the cultural differences within and among these groups could further help to understand their migration dynamics and tailor the response to their situation. For example, Syrian refugees – especially from Dara in the South of Syria – have strong cultural and economic ties with Jordan which makes it easier for them to establish relationships with Jordanians and build social capital. This process is more difficult for Somalis who are culturally more different and face more obstacles to naturally establish social relationships with Jordanians.

Next to differences between nationalities and communities, there are differences within these groups which influence their potential for integration. For example, Yemenis are composed of two groups: those from the north, who have a strong “tribal” identity, and those from the south. Those from the south have a longstanding culture of migration with Somalia and some of them even possess dual passports from both countries. The Yemeni passport may have provided them with easier entry to Jordan, as highlighted above, but this does not guarantee easy acceptance by their fellow Yemeni or Somali communities in Jordan who regard them as Muwalladin. Muwalladin is a term to describe Arabs with a mixed origin and often has negative connotations when used by Somalis or Yemenis. The term could refer to a Yemeni born to an African mother but also to a Yemeni born in a sub-Saharan country. The Muwalladin, who often have a black skin, are perceived as threatening the identity of the “pure” Yemenis. As such, integration challenges and tensions from within Yemen are then replicated in Jordan. Because of this, these communities face difficulties to integrate in Jordanian communities as well as bond with the Yemeni and Somali communities in Jordan.

Social interactions in Jabal Amman

Amman is marked by an economic and social divide between the Western part, made up of middle to high-income households, and the Eastern part, where mainly low to middle-income families live. Together with Jordanians (often with Palestinian roots), the Somali and Yemeni refugees and migrants reside mainly in the east and centre of Amman in neighbourhoods such as Jabal Amman. The area is preferred because of the low rents and its proximity to the city centre (called Wast al-Balad in Arabic). The presence of the Somali and Yemeni communities in the neighbourhood has led to a recreation of micro-societies with their own characteristics and dynamics, as well as tribal and ethnic divides that cut across nationalities and influence day-to-day interactions.

Muwalladin and Jordanians

In their daily interactions with Jordanians, the refugees and migrants of mixed origin are faced with racism and incidents of xenophobia. Somalis (and sub-Saharan Africans in general) are for example called Abu samra (You black person), Abed (Slave) and Abu al-leila (The person who looks like the night). For the interviewed respondents, these racist terms amplify already hierarchical interactions between Jordanians and their own communities. The interviewed refugees and migrants indicated that because of their skin colour they are also frequently asked about their identities by Jordanians, but also authorities and the police, and they feel it complicates their living situation. This is further reflected in the limited access to work that these communities have. For example, sub-Saharan and Yemeni refugees and migrants are often only accepted for jobs in restaurants, cleaning agencies or hairdressing salons, which are not preferred by Jordanians.

Muwalladin and Somalis

The interaction of those Muwalladin and communities of their own nationality is not necessarily better than the interactions with Jordanians. During interviews, people expressed tensions between the Muwalladin and Somalis. The Muwalladin reportedly face issues with clans. Broadly speaking, the Somali tribes are divided into four majority clans (the Hawiye, Darod, Dir and Rahawein) and a total of five minority clans (such as the Benadiri and the Bantu). They often rival each other and, for example, would not allow their people to marry someone belonging to another clan. Apart from conflict between the clans, most Somali clans look down upon the Muwalladin and avoid social interaction.

In Jordan, whenever there are tensions, the Somalis would rely on clan-affiliations and seek help there. Muwalladin, who do not clearly belong to these clans, do not have this support network, even though they have roots in Somalia. As indicated by a Somali-Yemeni man: “Even though we’re in the same neighbourhood, we don’t live together. There are some problems in the neighbourhood, between the tribes. It started with the war and it has continued here.” The relationship of Muwalladin with Somalis is not only compounded by perceptions the Somalis may have about them, but also by their own perception of the Somalis. In their interactions with Somalis, the Muwalladin themselves sometimes boast about their relation to Yemen and Yemini passport.

Muwalladin and Yemenis

While there are problems between the Somali communities and Muwalladin, there are also tensions between the Muwalidin and Yemeni communities. The Yemenis who are from the north or came to Jordan because of the war in Yemen regard themselves as “pure” Yemenis and look down upon Muwalladin of whom most came to Jordan before 2015. A 55-year-old Yemeni-Somali female respondent who is from the neighbourhood of Basateen in Aden, where many Somali refugees and Muwalladin reside, said she experienced increased hostility towards her since the war in Yemen started in 2015. While the war was the primary reason for her to leave Yemen, she also felt increasingly discriminated because of her Somali background. Reflecting on her struggles and mixed origin, she said: “We are like the planes that fly in the sky, we do not have a country.” She explained that she does not feel accepted by her fellow citizens from either Yemen or Somalia. In short, her mixed origin complicates the social relationship with those living in her neighborhood.

Lacking a sense of belonging

As the quotes and reflections have shown, the Somalis and Yemenis of mixed origin have difficulties to develop a sense of belonging and are constantly challenged and reminded of their background and dark skin colour. They do not feel part of the Yemeni, Somali, or Jordanian communities. All of this further strengthens their feeling of alienation from people who live around them and makes their inclusion in Jordan even more complicated.

Protracted urban displacement

While being stranded in Jordan and very much confined to a particular urban area in Amman, there are also positive interactions between host and migrant and refugee communities. This could partly stem from the realisation from both host and foreign communities that the refugees and migrants are there to stay. Initially, their intention may have been to only stay in Jordan for a short period before moving onwards, but the likelihood of them staying for an indefinite period is increasing over time. Some interviewees described that they received informal support from fellow citizens in their neighbourhood. Some have also received support from local humanitarian workers and Jordanian neighbours. For example, respondents shared that shopkeepers in Jabal Amman provide vulnerable people with loans and credits. Although this does not structurally address their needs, it does illustrate a case of positive interaction and support. Hence, despite the variety of challenges related to the integration of these communities, there are also signs of hope.

Meanwhile, access to asylum and international protection space has become more restricted and humanitarian aid is in decline. This has made refugees and migrants of all nationalities increasingly reliant on personal relationships within their own communities and with Jordanians to meet their needs. Strong community-based protection and relations within and between different communities may help vulnerable refugees and migrants to have their needs met within their own communities and neighbourhoods. However, if these relationships are influenced by xenophobia, racisms or negative perceptions of others, community protection is fragile at best. Hence, a critical question is whether – over time – the protracted displacement and prolonged cohabitation helps to reduce the tensions between communities, increase access to social capital and strengthen a sense of belonging for Somali-Yemeni refugees and migrants. Finally, while overcrowded and overstretched cities like Amman can provide sanctuary to those in transit and mixed migration flows, social dynamics between and within various communities must be understood and addressed to avoid exacerbating existing divides and tensions.

[1] Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. The only law discussing “asylum” or “refugees” is the Law of Residence and Foreign Affairs No. 24 / 1973 and its subsequent amendments, but no definitions are provided. Jordan’s refugee response is driven by the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding signed with the UNHCR, which grants UNHCR full responsibility for determining refugee status. In response to the Syrian Civil War, Jordan granted Syrians prima facie refugee status while other refugees still had to undertake UNHCR’s refugee status determination.