Jordan: Seeking Progress in the Land of Refugees

A look inside Za’atari refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan, December 7, 2012. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

To the extent that the United States can be considered a nation of immigrants, Jordan is a nation of refugees. Unlike most US immigrants going through an assimilation process, Jordanian refugees are still considered refugees even decades after entering the country and are often denied rights enjoyed by the rest of the population. The lack of integration and its resulting social pressures are at the core of Jordan’s struggle for unity and national identity.

Jordan’s refugees make up about half of its 7 million people and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has registered more than 2 million Palestinian refugees within the Kingdom, which doesn’t include the many more who have never bothered to register.

Most Palestinians arrived in Jordan during the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967 and after the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1990 (when thousands of Palestinian guest workers were expelled). Significant numbers (29,000) of Iraqi refugee have also entered Jordan as a result of the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. More recent Syrian refugees are said to number about 622,000 according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), although Jordanian authorities claim the figure to be much higher, at 1.4 million.

A recent survey by Norwegian research foundation Fafo, where I am a researcher, found living conditions among Palestinian refugees in Jordan had significantly improved in the past decade in terms of higher school enrolments at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. The study found health insurance coverage was also much improved and crowded housing had become less of a problem.

Despite this progress, many challenges remain, primarily the widening gap between camp and non-camp Palestinian refugees. The camps initially housed the most vulnerable and destitute refugees, while those better off settled elsewhere. These socioeconomic differences have had far-reaching consequences, including a widening education gap between the two groups.

The Fafo study also found that non-citizen Palestinian refugees, the so-called “ex-Gazans” who number about 140,000, are three times more likely than Palestinian refugees holding citizenship to be among the destitute poor, living on less than 1.25 USD a day. Although this might be attributed to a complex set of causes, legal restrictions limiting non-citizen access to public sector jobs and other professions is at the core.

The ex-Gazans also have no or limited access to public health insurance, poverty support or university scholarships. To their credit, Jordanian authorities have taken steps to address some of the problems. They have, for example, upgraded the sewage system in the almost exclusively ex-Gazan Jerash refugee camp and extended free public health services to children below the age of six.

Surveys such as the one by Fafo are crucial for UNRWA and the international donor community’s planning and programming. Jordanian authorities were, however, reluctant to publish the results, fearing perhaps that the positive outcomes it listed would raise expectations around their capacity to handle the new wave of Syrian refugees.

Jordan’s overall record on refugees is nonetheless a very mixed one. The nation has, for example, failed to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention for refugees, but generally offered generous humanitarian hospitality and temporary protection to its refugees. And, while Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan between December 20, 1949, and February 16, 1954, were granted Jordanian citizenship, those arriving since then have suffered from temporary and limited rights.

As a further example, Iraqi refugees have never been acknowledged as refugees to begin with. They have been seen as a security risk or an economic burden, rather than a humanitarian issue and have received only temporary protection for six months under a 1998 agreement with the UNHCR. With a resettlement process intended beyond this deadline, they have not received formal rights to residency, employment, education, or health care.

Turning to Syrian refugees, Jordan initially extended generous hospitality to their “brothers in need” by accepting the majority into host communities and providing open access to local health and education facilities. By the end of 2014, however, this hospitality saw signs of fatigue. Fees were introduced for health services and mandatory renewal of refugee cards became more complicated, hinting at a new policy aiming to return refugees to the camps.

Where Jordan goes from here is difficult to predict. Barriers to improvements for refugees can be linked to strong memories of armed conflict between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian army during the so-called Black September of 1970. Although this incident is almost 45 years in the past, the dread of a “Palestinization” of Jordan lingers among much of the original Trans-Jordanian population. This fear extends beyond the Palestinian refugees and can explain general sensitivities around refugees in the Kingdom.

Nobody expects Jordan to provide full citizenship to all of its refugee population, particularly in light of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking protection since 2011. As the Syrian civil war continues unabated, these refugees are not going to leave the country any time soon.

A softer approach toward the refugees could nonetheless be beneficial for both Jordan and its many vulnerable refugees. This could include granting a set of limited rights. Although Jordan is struggling with unemployment, particularly for its youth, it would be constructive to provide Syrian refugees with a kind of authorized access to the informal labor market where they already work. Giving partial access to the labor market would add greater stability and predictability to refugees’ lives and reduce their exposure to exploitation.

As the Fafo study illustrated, there is also a strong correlation between providing education and combating poverty. An inclusive education policy for all refugees, whether they are Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, or other, would therefore increase resilience. This should include not only basic education for younger children but secondary and post-secondary training, which are often neglected.

By providing refugees with better education and livelihood opportunities, Jordan will not only contribute to its own development and stability but also transform its refugees from needy clients to productive contributors to its society.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.