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Q&A: Syrian refugee crisis & the Jordanian political storm on the horizon

Many Syrian refugees in Jordan have settled in border communities with the least resources to cope - and tensions over four years have built up
A makeshift Syrian refugee camp in Kherbet al-Souq, a residential area on the outskirts of Amman (MEE/Arwa' Debaja)

While tens of thousands of Syrian refugees crossing through Europe have made headlines in recent weeks, in Jordan, a quiet, four-year-old storm in the making is brewing, according to a new Chatham House report.

One of the few states in the region to remain stable in recent years, Jordan has taken in at least 630,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, raising the country's population by eight percent.

While increased demand for housing has allowed Jordanians to set higher rents, businesses have benefitted from a greater need for products and there is now widespread availability of informal Syrian labourers, tensions are high in many of the areas, particularly in northern Jordan, where the majority of Syrians live in urban areas outside official camps - and where many Jordanians feel their lives are worse off because of the Syrians.  

Meanwhile, there have been sharp cutbacks in aid. Earlier this month, the World Food Programme (WFP) dropped a third of Syrian refugees from its relief efforts, including 229,000 out of 440,000 in Jordan who stopped receiving food aid in September. Those still receiving food aid can only get a maximum of $14 each month, WFP spokespeople have said.

After EU leaders pledged $1.1bn for Syrian refugees in the Middle East this week, it seems likely more aid money will flow to Syrians in Jordan.

But money alone will not solve the tensions that have been stirred up in Jordan, says Doris Carrion, Middle East and North Africa Research Associate at Chatham House, who spoke with more than 70 government, civil society and aid agency officials for her report on the country's coming challenges.

MEE spoke with Carrion to find out more about what options Jordan has and what is likely to happen next.

MEE: It seems like Jordan has a perfect storm of problems: the public is in uproar even though the impact of Syrians on the country’s economy is unclear, the politicians are pressured by political opinion and meanwhile, aid agencies are running out of money to help the refugees.

Carrion: It’s quite similar to some of the public reactions to Syrians arriving in Europe now, but of course it’s amplified because in countries like Jordan, it’s been happening for years and really at much higher numbers than what Europe is currently experiencing. So fears about what the economic and security impact might be are really pervasive and are getting worse which is part of the reason that Syrians are increasingly making the choice to try and find their way to Europe and other countries.

MEE: Because the situation in Lebanon and Jordan is increasingly not much of an option for Syrian refugees?

Carrion: Yes absolutely. Aid is running out and any kind of assets that the Syrians brought with them, by now they’ve sold. Or they’ve spent all of their savings. They may have relied on friends and neighbours for support, but that’s increasingly difficult to access. All the while, while some people are able to find work opportunities in the informal sector, for most people that is really difficult because its illegal and they run the risk of being deported if they are caught working, so people increasingly have no options for anyway to make ends meet.

MEE: The main message I took from your report was that the biggest thing the Jordanian government can do to improve the situation is to legalise Syrians working in the country. Is that what you are saying?

Carrion: That’s absolutely the case. It would have a massive impact. It is also the most politically difficult thing to do. So what our research is doing, and what a lot of other people in the aid community and at a think tank level are trying to help figure out, is what are ways that there might be some progress in allowing Syrians to work and support themselves while still being politically palatable for the local domestic context. There are a number of things that people are proposing and looking into more details like allowing Syrians to work in their own refugee camps which they are not technically allowed to do right now.

As much as possible, the government is trying to present an argument to its own people – look , there are some positive benefits in terms of the aid funds coming in and some of the jobs that are being created in response to the refugee issue, but that means that unfortunately, it’s left a really big population completely dependent on aid that is just not coming anymore.

MEE: How likely is it that the Jordanian government will allow Syrians to work legally?

Carrion: There have been some positive signs. There seems to be a gradually opening space for discussion about Syrians being able to work in Jordan. The Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Imad Fakhoury said that the government earlier this year is looking into the issue. That’s not action, but it’s an indication of being open to discussing a potential policy. But in reality, it could take a least a year if not longer before these things chance and it will take a lot of international pressure and it will take creative solutions that work up opportunities for Syrians, but also make sure that Jordanians still get the support that they need development projects in some of those border areas, vocational training for Jordanians as well as Syrians. I think those are the kinds of approaches you need to take to make it politically possible for the Jordanian authorities to be able to open up work opportunities for Syrians. People are working on this and they are trying but it seems it’s difficult.

MEE: It sounds like locals, particularly in northern Jordan where many of the Syrian refugees outside of Amman now live, seem to feel that the state hasn’t done enough for them, let alone for refugees.

Carrion: Exactly. They feel like they’ve been left alone to manage this massive population that requires local authorities for example to build new housing and new streets and put in electricity and find places in schools and all of those aspects of having a population that has doubled and continues to increase from year to year. A lot of money is coming in to help the refugees, but for a variety of reasons it tends to go the UN and international NGOS who are doing a lot of really good work and projects in maintaining a few of the camps, but actually in reality, most of the numbers of Syrians are living in towns that are getting some aid support, but that are still having a really big impact on public services and the local authorities that manage all of those services are getting very little support.

It all sounds kind of mundane when you bring it down to the level of collecting trash and providing electricity, but this is what makes the most immediate impact in peoples day to day live and what research has found tends to be the most direct cause between Syrians and Jordanians. So that’s a big part of what people’s concerns are about on top of the whole job situation.

MEE: Can you walk me through what could happen for the average Jordanian if the situation continues as it is?

Carrion: The sense that we get – and what we are trying to draw attention to – is that these border areas of Jordan have for years been neglected and the levels of economic development and access to opportunity in the northern part of the country are vastly different than what they are in the capital. This is also the case for other parts of Jordan, like the south – and actually some of the southern governorates, like Maan and Karak, have traditionally been more the areas where you’ve seen demonstrations that turn violent and where people really mark their being rising discontent against the government. This depends on the economic and political situation and what’s going on regionally as well.

But Jordan has been a stable country definitely compared to its neighbour, but it doesn’t mean that doesn’t have its own kind of pockets where people are increasingly frustrated with the government. So what I’m arguing in the report is that prior to the Syria crisis, the government was really trying to push through certain economic reforms and distribute economic growth more evenly around the country which is inherently a stabilising policy. But now because of the impact of refugees and because so many of these Syrians are being left dependent on aid and not allow to contribute to the economy through working, there is a real possibility that poverty and political discontent in those areas could increase in the coming years. And that can sometimes mean recruitment to radical groups, but that can also mean an increasing likelihood to have demonstrations against the government which are fed by this feeling of being left alone to deal with the crisis while, in their minds, people off in Amman continue to live more comfortable lives without having to deal with the refugee crisis in quite as stark a way.

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