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Future Development

The legal problems of refugees

Paul Prettitore

Like other vulnerable people, refugees are likely to encounter legal problems. These problems are often linked directly to their displacement, but also reflect general problems poor people encounter related to family, civil, and criminal matters. The longer the displacement, the more legal problems that tend to arise, especially those problems that are less closely linked to displacement.  And these problems begin to strain local institutions.  The Ministry of Justice has reported increased caseloads of 84 percent in Mafraq, 77 percent in Irbid and 50 percent in Amman, all of which are areas with considerable refugee populations.  

The Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA), a Jordanian civil society organization, began providing legal aid services (information/awareness, counseling, and representation by a lawyer) to poor Jordanians in 2008. In 2011, JCLA and the World Bank began cooperation in piloting legal aid service-delivery models to poor Jordanians and refugees. The original program for refugees was aimed at Palestinians and Iraqis. But the conflict in Syria has made Syrians the largest refugee clients, followed by Palestinians residing in official refugee camps. Iraqis, who tended to be economically better-off than other refugees, were slow to seek assistance.   

The need for specialized services targeted to refugees was quickly apparent. Outreach to refugee communities proved more difficult than we originally thought. Refugees tended to receive information through different channels than poor Jordanians, often through families, friends, and community members as opposed to official awareness campaigns. And refugees were also more reluctant to engage with what they perceived as Jordanian entities. This was especially true of refugees outside of camps who preferred to keep a low profile. 

Reaching refugee communities

To tackle this challenge, JCLA has piloted awareness and counseling services with the help of other civil society organizations (CSOs) and Syrian community members.  Awareness and counseling have been provided through other CSOs providing social services to refugees. And Syrian lawyers have been drafted to provide information and awareness to their own communities, free of charge. We’ve been targeting such services primarily to Syrian refugees outside of camps, who receive less assistance than those in camps.

Another reason refugees were difficult to reach is that they tend to experience different types of legal problems than poor Jordanians, often requiring unique solutions. The most recent administrative data from JCLA, covering 1,385 cases of counseling and representation by a lawyer to Syrians and Palestinians, provides some insight. Almost 75 percent of cases have been brought by Syrians, highlighting the more recent surge in demand from this community. 

For both Syrian and Palestinian refugees, the most common types of legal problems were family law issues, accounting for 65 percent of all cases. Criminal legal problems accounted for 15 percent of cases, refugee-related issues 13 percent, and civil issues 7 percent. This is similar to the legal problems faced by poor Jordanians.  But conflict and displacement often cause additional strains on family structures, resulting in more problems. 

Within the refugee communities, what stands out is the large number of legal problems faced by Syrians involving marriage, divorce, alimony, and child custody as compared to Palestinians. These stem from conflicts of Jordanian and Syrian legal frameworks and the realities of displacement. For example, marriages in Syria do not need to be certified by a court, whereas in Jordan they do. Attempts by Syrians to prove family relations, which is a often necessary step to obtain certain kinds of humanitarian relief, are frustrated, causing many to file cases in Jordan’s family courts.

What I find the most interesting is the following:

  • Access to alimony and child support is the most common type of problem faced by Syrians, primarily poor women. Alimony and child support are financial transfers meant primarily to ensure the basic needs of children are met. If payments are not made, female-headed households are more likely to be in poverty;
  • Syrians are much more likely to experience problems related to proof of marriage; basically, marriages conducted in Syria. This has consequences for newborn children, who cannot be properly registered without proof their parents are married; 
  • Legal problems around divorce are also more common for Syrian women.  This is further complicated when husbands remain in Syria, or have traveled to third countries and abandoned their families; 
  • Syrians were much more likely to have legal problems related to refugee status, namely access to civil and refugee registration documents, and deportation. The legal framework that applies to Palestinians perhaps provides more security; 
  • Legal problems covering civil issues were quite uncommon for both Syrian and Palestinian communities, suggesting that refugees were largely excluded from formal labor force participation and commercial transactions. Those problems that do emerge involve housing (landlord-tenant disputes), labor (most likely labor exploitation), and small financial claims (for which parties must be represented by a lawyer, as opposed to being resolved through simplified small claims procedures);  
  • Criminal law problems for both communities primarily related to theft, burglary, assault, battery, and forgery. It’s not clear to what extent refugees are victims or perpetrators, and how many cases involve juveniles versus adults.  Anecdotal evidence suggests Syrian refugees are over-represented in the juvenile justice system.

Two legal problems not covered by the data likely affecting refugees are domestic violence and the marriage of minors. Experience suggests domestic violence is higher in refugee communities. Jordan’s Population and Family Health Surveys demonstrate higher rates of domestic violence in Palestinian refugee camps than for Jordanians. Anecdotal evidence suggests the marriage of minors is more prevalent among Syrian refugees. Although such marriages are legal when certified by a Sharia court judge, the concern is that such marriages involving Syrians are conducted outside of the court systems, exposing young girls to a host of legal problems in the future such as guardianship of children and access to marital assets.  And girls are often more at risk of domestic violence when married as minors.    

Understanding the legal problems of refugees will remain important. If left unaddressed, these problems can undermine the effectiveness of humanitarian and development assistance provided to refugees. They may also exacerbate tensions between refugees and their host communities. 

Author

Already the Government of Jordan has shown some adeptness—the Chief Justice of the Sharia Court issued an opinion against applying financial penalties to refugees for lacking court-certified marriage documents from Syria. This policy response is a step in the right direction.  

But more can be done.  Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees, the standard-bearer for treatment of refugees, and lacks its own comprehensive legal framework elaborating rights and responsibilities.  Providing some legal certainty would help eliminate opportunities for social and economic exclusion and exploitation of refugees that lead to legal problems.  And donors could do more to shore up Jordanian courts overwhelmed by increased caseloads while also supporting non-court alternatives to dispute resolution. 

This blog was first launched in September 2013 by the World Bank in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at brookings.edu.

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