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Jordan’s Refugees: Breaking the back of the kingdom?

19/07/2012

Um Firas is a formidably energetic lady who, since arriving in Jordan mid-March, has been coordinating efforts to help Syrian refugees in Amman less fortunate than herself. She was, she tells me, a peaceful pro-Revolution activist in Damascus for a year before fleeing along with her son and daughter in-law. She was wanted by the Syrian authorities, and her son was in desperate need of medical care after losing a hand in Syrian Army shellfire.  He has since been treated in Jordan but is waiting for reconstructive surgery in Germany.

As thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Jordan each month, the Kingdom upholds its longstanding reputation for hospitality by accommodating them. But amidst economic hardships and an increasingly tense political environment, this hospitality may yet be the undoing of the regime.

I met Um Firas in Sweileh, a northern suburb of the capital, where she rents a pleasant apartment with the help of friends and local aid. She had spent the morning at the Syrian Union gathering details about some of the families newly arrived from the border camp of Bashabsheh, and during our meeting she took several calls related to finding them work or places to stay.

Syrian refugees who enter Jordan unofficially via Ramtha are registered by the Jordanian authorities at Bashabsheh and remain there until a Jordanian national comes to act as their ‘guarantor’, paying for each individual to secure their unrestricted travel in Jordan and to allow them access to Jordanian medical services.  Designed to accommodate up to 600 refugees, the camp has been flooded by over 2000, with over 100 new refugees arriving at the camp on some days.  Um Firas said she spent her first night there crying, but despite conditions at the camp, she sings the praises of the Jordanian authorities:  ‘We never imagined there could be such good authorities. Ours are criminals’.

In fact, whilst the Jordanian government scrambles to attract more foreign aid, much of the current assistance to Syrian refugees comes from small local NGOs. Um Firas was lucky to be guarantored after only two days by a member of a one such organization, Sanabil, which for the past year has been distributing essential supplies to refugees in northern Jordan. It is run by residents of nearby Husn camp, Palestinian-Jordanians who themselves grew up on an UNWRA refugee camp in Jordan and therefore feel something of the hardships that Syrians in Jordan are now experiencing.

Jordan’s reputation for hospitality, or ‘karam’ has been stretched to the limit by waves of refugees over the years. In addition to the 30 thousand Syrians in Jordan currently estimated by the Hashemite Charitable Foundation to be in need of assistance, 50,000 Iraqis registered as refugees with the UN between 2003 and 2010. This does not include the several hundred thousand Iraqis who never registered. Whilst some have returned to Iraq, others await resettlement by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Still others are coming to terms with their new homes in Jordan. And even now, more are arriving. Comparatively few of them are authorized to work legally in Jordan.

When I mention the Iraqi refugees to Um Firas, she comments that, unlike most of the Syrians, the Iraqis in Jordan are rich. Overall, the economic status of Iraqis in Jordan is certainly higher than the Syrians’, but there are plenty of exceptions. Abu Sa’ad is a fifty-something Sunni Iraqi who came from Dawra, Baghdad, just 6 months ago with his wife and seven young children. His brother was killed in a sectarian related attack in 2007 and he himself was repeatedly threatened. They are living in Sahab, a poor town south-east of Amman, paying 60JD per month for a squalid 2-room apartment. On the hot spring day that I visited them with some fellow Iraqis who were donating clothes and furniture to the family, the smell of sewage was distinct.

The children have not been to school since arriving because although the Jordanian authorities allow Iraqi refugees to attend Jordanian schools, they require the children’s certificates from their former schools confirming their grade. Abu Sa’ad says that these were left behind in Iraq, and there is no possibility of retrieving them, so the children will wait until they can be placed during the next academic year. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter, 14-year old Sara, is working as a casual domestic worker for a neighbor to bring in some small income. Abu Sa’ad expresses gratitude for the generosity of his neighbors, but is not enthusiastic about his prospects. He has registered for the IOM resettlement scheme, but, he says, with the arrival of the Syrians, Iraqis have been forgotten.

The initiative to collect donations for struggling families like Abu Sa’ad’s comes from Dalia, a young Jordanian of Iraqi and Lebanese parentage who was introduced to the families by an employee of CARE, an international humanitarian organization which since 2007 has been active in Iraqi refugee programmes in Jordan. Several other Iraqis who are themselves awaiting resettlement in the States have joined her (largely Facebook-driven) campaign to help. One of them, Ghassan, has been here since 2010. He had worked for an American company associated with the ‘Occupation’ forces for several years in Baghdad, putting his family in danger as a result. Ghassan is a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, and though the uncertainties of the IOM programme bring him down periodically, he is generally upbeat about a future in America. He scarcely falls into the ‘rich’ category, but he keeps himself financially afloat through money sent from his family in Iraq and a job working for a relative’s media company in Amman.

Ghassan has made some good friends in Jordan, and one afternoon I ask one of them – Shadi – a Jordanian Christian – what he thinks about all these refugees in his country. ‘They’re killing me’, he says.  Shadi has been in the same line of work for twelve years and at a time when food and fuel prices are rising sharply, his wages have been progressively falling. He holds people like his friend Ghassan partly responsible. ‘You think he’s really a refugee?’, Shadi asks, incredulous. Of course, I say: he can’t go back to his own country. Shadi shrugs; for him a refugee is someone living in abject poverty.  People like Ghassan, however valid their reasons for being in Jordan, are illegal workers who are taking Jordanians’ jobs or forcing down their wages. Um Firas confirmed to me that she had been able to find work for some of her Syrian connections, but she lamented the fact that many employers exploit the unauthorized status of refugees by offering them pitifully low wages.

When I put it to Shadi that it’s hardly the fault of the refugees, he reluctantly agrees, and says that the government should be prioritizing Jordanian citizens in the provision of fairly paid jobs rather than turning a blind eye to illegal Arab workers who send remittances back to their own country rather than investing in Jordan’s economy. Naturally, this is only one side of the story: post 2003 some parts of Jordan’s economy – particularly the banking sector – have benefited significantly from investment by affluent Iraqis. But in some respects, perceptions matter as much as realities.

Shadi’s opinion is reflected across the country, particularly amongst the East Bank Jordanian population. Traditionally the Hashemite monarchy’s core support group, many East Bankers feel that Jordan’s reputation for hospitality has been exploited to their detriment as far back as the influx of Palestinian refugees that began 64 years ago, and that it is high time for the regime to look after ‘their own’. This feeling of alienation was made apparent to me in a recent conversation with a prominent member of one of Jordan’s biggest tribes, the Bani Hassan. We were discussing a tribal ‘jalwa’ or ‘banishment’ which had taken place in Zarqa province after fighting broke out between several tribes last September. Three men were killed, and as a result the provincial Governor banished around 1300 people, an entire subsection of the tribe, to outside of the province to prevent further escalations. They have been waiting to go home ever since. My interlocutor, a member of the exiled clan, told me:

You know we are original Jordanians – we are not Palestinian or Syrian refugees. We deserve the best treatment from our government… We say to the government – treat us like refugees – then at least we could get medical treatment and accommodation free of charge.

Over the past year, East Bankers have become increasingly active in calls for political reform in Jordan, although polls by Jordan’s Strategic Studies Centre suggest that disaffected citizens in Jordan prioritize economic stability over political reform.  Jordan’s King Abduallah seems well aware of this, and in an interview with the Washington Post last year he stated:

The Arab Spring didn’t start because of politics; it started because of poverty and unemployment… What keeps me up at night is not political reform because I am clear on where we are going. What keeps me up at night is the economic situation because if people are going to get back on the streets, it is because of economic challenges, not political.

Be that as it may, the King has been bogged down in political problems, and last month he was forced to appoint the third prime minister in fifteen months after Awn Khasawneh resigned abruptly from the post. Frustration with resistance to electoral reforms which would decrease the influence of East Bank tribal groupings is rumoured to have prompted his resignation.

Jordanian national identity has always relied heavily on hospitality, and the regime is under Western political pressure to keep extending that hospitality to the refugee community. But without significant outside funds and a change of heart within Jordan’s population, hospitality may yet be the Hashemite Monarchy’s undoing.

Jessica Watkins
(Some names have been changed at interviewees request.)