Fleeing Syria for Jordan
As early as March 2011, Syrians fleeing violence in their country began arriving in Jordan. The greatest numbers, almost 90 percent of those currently in Jordan, arrived in the first 18 months of the crisis. About two years into the Syrian war, the Jordanian government in May 2013 began instituting policies to control the inflow of refugees. This included an effective ban on entry of Palestinian refugees previously residing in Syria. While Jordan’s borders remain officially open to Syrian refugees, in practice there are significant limits on the ability of Syrians to enter the country, particularly if they ever returned to Syria for whatever reason or duration. Before border controls were tightened, Syrian refugees in Jordan would temporarily return to Syria in order to sell their property, get cheaper medical treatment, etc.
The number of Syrians attempting to enter Jordan recently increased again following the Russian intervention in September 2015, which escalated fighting near Syria’s southern border with Jordan. However, due to growing concerns within the kingdom about conflict spillover from Syria and the economic and political costs of hosting a growing number of Syrians, the Jordanian military is now conducting longer screenings of Syrians before sending them on to refugee camps in the country. This has meant that only a few dozens are being allowed to enter per day. Media reports in February 2016 indicated that there are up to 27.000 Syrians waiting for clearance in unofficial camps at the border. These camps are said to contain inadequate services, and humanitarian organizations have limited access and resources to provide for the people contained in them.
As of March 2016, there are approximately 636.000 Syrians (6.7 percent of Jordan’s population) registered by Interner Link: UNHCR. The Jordanian government considers 1.27 million Syrians (13.7 percent of Jordan’s population) to be a more accurate number, which includes those who have chosen not to register with the UN and those who were living in Jordan before the war. If Syrians do not register with Interner Link: UNHCR, they are considered to be in the country illegally unless they have attained residency through the usual visa process for foreigners. This, however, would usually only be the case for well-off Syrians. Non-registered Syrians also do not have access to UNHCR’s services.
The majority of Syrians hosted in Jordan have been from southern Syria, particularly from the Deraa governorate. Most are settled in either the northern Jordanian governorates that border Syria or in the capital, Amman. Based on the UN’s numbers, around 20 percent of Syrians live in five refugee camps. The remaining 80 percent reside in urban areas – villages, towns and the capital. The largest refugee camp, Zaatari, houses approximately 80.000 Syrians and is now the fourth largest concentration of people in Jordan.
Living Conditions and Impact
As Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (known as Geneva Refugee Convention), Syrians admitted to Jordan do not have formal refugee status. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Government of Jordan and UNHCR in 1998 and amended in 2014 instead stipulates that Syrian asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the country while their status is being determined. This is on the condition that once they are registered with Interner Link: UNHCR, they will either be repatriated to Syria or resettled to a third country within six months. In practice, this six-month limit was not enforced and until late 2014 Jordan was renewing Syrians’ residencies and service cards. Syrians receive certificates indicating them as asylum seekers and service cards upon registration with UNHCR and the Jordanian Ministry of Interior that facilitate their access to subsidized healthcare and government-run education services, as well as cash and food assistance from UNHCR and its partner organizations. Through November 2014, the government provided access for Syrians to state-run subsidized healthcare. In the period since then, subsidized healthcare has only been accessible to Syrians through humanitarian organizations. The government is still not forcing Syrians to leave the country if no solution (either resettlement or repatriation) has been found for them after having stayed in Jordan for six months. NGO reports suggest that many residencies are no longer renewed which leaves many refugees in "legal limbo", though they may still receive assistance by UNHCR.
Because of their limited legal status, Syrians face serious difficulty when attempting to move residence, access public services and humanitarian assistance, as well as register births, deaths and marriages. The birth registration limitation means that Syrian children born in Jordan often have no legal status and hence cannot receive the service cards necessary for accessing government-run education and healthcare. Palestinians from Syria have no legal status in Jordan apart from the protection afforded them by Interner Link: UNRWA.
The majority of Syrians in Jordan are poor, and their conditions have been worsening as the crisis has endured. Around 70 percent are living below the poverty line of 50 JD/capita/month (approximately 63 euros), according to a 2016 World Bank report. As the years pass by, many families have spent all their savings, sold their valuables, or exhausted support from family members abroad. For some, this is the second time within a decade that they have been displaced: many poor agricultural workers from northeast Syria were displaced from their homes due to drought (in the period 2006-2010) and had recently moved to Aleppo or Damascus in search of work when the war began.
Many Syrians rely on cash and food voucher assistance from Interner Link: UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) in order to meet their daily subsistence needs. Of Syrians who work, around 99 percent are employed in the informal sector without official work permits. Most are working in construction. Many of these are children and youth, who can more easily work or beg without coming under scrutiny by the Jordanian authorities. Decreases in international aid for Syrian refugees often means an increase in Syrian child labor: the WFP reported that after cuts to its funding in September 2015, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of families who were sending their children to work. Being sent to work, combined with safety concerns and the cost of attending or transportation, means that many Syrian refugee children are not attending school. A recent report found that around 40 percent of Syrian children in Jordan remain out of school.
There is no simple or comprehensive way to describe how the Syrian refugee crisis has impacted Jordan. Some Jordanians have benefited from the crisis, while others have experienced primarily negative effects. The government has incurred significant fiscal expenditure from the costs of providing additional public services, the demands upon national infrastructure, and the operating costs of transport, vetting and registration of arriving Syrians. However, it has also received unprecedented amounts of foreign aid to contribute to these costs. For example, while in 2011 U.S. economic aid to Jordan was below $400 million per year, by 2014 it had increased to $700 million per year, and in 2015 U.S. economic and military assistance to Jordan was increased to pledges of $1 billion per year through 2017.
In general, the Jordanians who are now worse off because of the Syrian refugee crisis were already among the poorest in the country. The northern governorates now hosting over 350.000 Syrians have always received significantly less development and investment than the capital or touristic areas elsewhere in the country. Residents of those governorates now face the most pronounced impacts from the Syrian refugee crisis. While there is not yet conclusive evidence that Syrians have been taking jobs from Jordanians, the entry of so many additional workers into the market has pushed down wages in the informal sector, which affects the high proportion of Jordanians employed in that sector. The population growth in urban areas across the country has led to higher rents, which also hits the poor hardest. Schools, which were already in bad condition and offering a low quality of education, are now even more overcrowded and have to run ‘double shift’ schooldays in order to accommodate both Jordanian and Syrian children.
Public and Political Reactions
Public reactions to the Syrian refugees have been mixed. Sympathy was highest in the early days of the war, when it was not yet clear how long the refugees’ presence would last. The emergence of ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria then gave rise to growing concerns that Syrians would spread violence and extremism in Jordan. Jordanians of ‘East Banker’ backgrounds are also greatly concerned with becoming a shrinking minority within their own country, given the longstanding presence of Palestinian refugees, many of whom have become citizens, and to a lesser extent, Iraqi refugees. While at a national level the economic impact of the refugees themselves is inconclusive, Jordan’s economy has suffered from the wider effects of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq: border closures have blocked overland exports and the absence of regional security has damaged the climate for foreign investment. Jordanians who feel the effects of the country’s economic woes often associate these effects with Syrian refugees.
In a national poll conducted by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies in August 2013, 65 percent of respondents were against receiving more Syrian refugees, and 80 percent said that it was better to keep Syrians in camps rather than allowing them to reside in urban areas. 74 percent said that the presence of Syrians outside camps posed a threat to national security and stability, and 88 percent agreed with the statement that Syrians are placing increased pressure on economic resources and public services.
The vast majority of Syrians, particularly those working outside the camps, do not have formal work permits. This increases the chance of labor exploitation and even the risk of being returned to Syria if caught without a permit. Only very recently has there been some movement in the direction of opening up more legal opportunities for Syrians to work. The issue was previously very sensitive, because facilitating legal access to work for Syrians was seen as a step that would encourage Syrians to stay in Jordan long term rather than return to Syria as soon as the situation stabilized. However, political and opinion leaders in Jordan have gradually been coming to acknowledge that it may be over a decade until the conditions in Syria can enable refugees to return. In addition, Western donors have been more open to offering significant incentives and support for this measure, given that the deteriorating situations for Syrians in Jordan and Syria’s other neighboring countries have contributed to the refugee and migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe.
In February 2016, Jordan committed to facilitating work permits for up to 200.000 Syrians in exchange for increased access to European markets for Jordanian exports, as well as access to special low-interest loans from the World Bank and other multilateral donors. 150.000 of these jobs are stipulated to be positions at factories and other industrial businesses in special economic zones. The remaining jobs are likely to be in the agricultural sector, given that the government’s inclination thus far has been to consider work opportunities for Syrians in sectors where labor is typically already provided by foreign migrant workers. This is intended to minimize the real and perceived impact on jobs for Jordanians. Progress in creating those 200.000 jobs for Syrians will be slow, however, particularly since the majority of opportunities will only become available if private investors decide to support the expansion and creation of businesses in the special economic zones.
This article is part of the Interner Link: country profile Jordan.