As refugee crisis extends, Jordanian hospitality wears thin


February 19, 2014

February 19, 2014

What happens when you add more than half a million refugees to a small desert kingdom already struggling to take care of its own? In the first of a two-part series, Alex Simon and Abdulrahman al-Masri explore how Jordanians are responding to the extended stay of their Syrian neighbors. Part 2 is available here

AMMAN: On an otherwise quiet evening along Amman’s Medina Street, one hole-in-the-wall storefront teems with customers as an assembly line of white- and yellow-clad employees prepares meals from spits of glistening shawarma meat.

“Anas Chicken,” reads the bright green and yellow façade. “Founded in Syria in 1991.”

A few minutes’ walk from Anas, the recently opened Jordanian branch of Bakdash—a Damascus landmark that for more than a century has boasted the Middle East’s most famous ice cream—has drawn a half-dozen customers despite the February chill.

anas.jpgAnas Shawarma has drawn crowds of Syrians and Jordanians since opening
its Amman branch last summer. Photo courtesy of AnasRestaurants.

Bakdash and Anas, both of which have opened their Amman locations in the last nine months, are but two small indicators of the way that nearly 600,000 Syrian refugees have begun to reshape the cultural and economic landscape of a country whose population is generally estimated at between six and seven million.

As a bastion of relative stability at the center of a historically turbulent region, the Hashemite Kingdom is no stranger to refugee populations. For 65 of its 67 years as an independent country, Jordan has served as a landing pad for the region’s displaced, receiving wave after wave of Palestinian and, later, Iraqi refugees fleeing successive conflicts in their homelands.

“Jordan, from its establishment, has been receiving refugees,” said a senior official in the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, who asked to remain unnamed due to the sensitivity of the topic. “Hosting refugees is part of the national character.”

Despite this long history of accepting refugee populations, Jordanian officials maintain that the continuing exodus of Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war is unique in its intensity and duration. The result, they say, has been a profound destabilizing effect on the Jordanian economy.

“The Syrian refugee influx is different from previous experiences that Jordan has seen—and Jordan has seen many—in the sense that it is ongoing,” said the Foreign Ministry official. “Previous experiences were that they came in one wave.”

The arrival of more than half a million Syrians—the official UN figure puts the total at 573,425—since March 2011 has stoked anxieties and engendered resentment among Jordanians, who often complain that refugees compete for jobs, drive up housing prices and contribute to rising crime rates.

“Not all of the Syrians who have come are good people,” says Yacoub Qasis, a 25-year-old sound engineer in Amman, reflecting a sentiment not uncommon in affluent Jordanian circles. “There are also unemployed Syrians who are dependent on society and who are responsible for stealing and other crime.”

The number of crimes committed by Syrians in the Kingdom has doubled as the refugee crisis has intensified, according to a report by A-Sabeel, a Jordanian weekly newspaper. The paper cited a security source last November who said that crime incidents rose from just under 5,000 incidents in 2012 to roughly 10,000 in 2013.

The official and semi-official media also repeat the theme that too many Syrians are taking jobs from Jordanians, an assertion belied by the difficulty for Syrians to obtain work permits as well as the statistics. 

“Companies started employing Syrians because they take lower wages than Jordanians,” says Kareem Madi, a 27-year-old television producer, echoing widespread complaints about Syrian competition in the labor market.

But some analysts insist that Syrians are essentially competing for low-level jobs in which Jordanians themselves have little interest—particularly as the Jordanian Ministry of Labor has threatened to deport any Syrians working illegally.

“Only five percent of the Jordanian labor force goes to menial jobs,” says Yusuf Mansour, a Jordanian economist.

“Jordanians like to go work for the government, or in white-collar jobs, but they don’t like to take up menial labor,” says Mansour, adding that “most likely—and nobody has data on this—the Syrian refugees actually compete with Egyptian workers.”

Official Jordanian statistics suggest that the refugees’ impact on Jordanian unemployment has been limited, if not non-existent. The average unemployment rate across all four quarters in 2013 was 12.6 percent, compared with 12.2 in 2012 and 12.9 in 2011.

The unemployment rate of 11.0 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013 was the lowest in the past five years.


Screen_Shot_2014-02-19_at_1.04.01_PM.png
Table courtesy of Jordan’s Department of Statistics.

Mansour also suggests that, insofar as Syrians are actually taking jobs from Jordanians, it is simply a reflection of the fact that the Syrians are more skilled than their Jordanian counterparts as a result of Jordan’s underdeveloped education system.

“Syrians are better skilled than Jordanians, whose vocational training is very low—[Jordanians] came 102 out of 103 in terms of vocational training” in a 2013 study entitled the Global Talent Competitiveness Index.

Still, tensions between Syrian refugees and their host communities have undeniably been on the rise; a June 2013 survey by the Center for Strategic Studies, a Jordanian think tank, found that 73 percent of respondents opposed allowing further refugees to enter the country.

The growing strains led the Jordanian government to tamp down refugee flows in the summer of 2013—closing dozens of illegal crossings and limiting traffic through the official ones—causing the influx to slow to a trickle after peaking earlier in the year.

Jordan_Refugee_Chart.png
Chart showing number of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Photo courtesy of UNHCR.

Seeking refuge amidst the rural poor

International attention tends to focus on the Zaatari refugee camp, a sprawling expanse of tents and tin caravans in the middle of Jordan’s rocky desert that since opening in July 2012 has become Jordan’s fourth-largest population center, and arguably the most iconic symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Yet Zaatari’s current 102,640 residents account for under 18 percent of all Syrian refugees in Jordan, with the remaining 470,785 scattered throughout Jordanian towns and cities.

These refugees are most concentrated in Jordan’s northern desert along the border with Syria, where their presence has given rise to increasing tensions within communities that have long endured poor economic conditions and limited government services.

“It happens that refugees are centered in areas such as Irbid and Mafraq where there is high poverty and unemployment,” says economist Yusuf Mansour.

Because the UN and international donors set up educational facilities, Mansour says, refugee children in the camps are often getting better schooling than Jordanians.

“This creates a lot of jealousy.”

While the refugee presence is most concentrated in the north, many Syrians have also traveled farther south to Amman, which regularly ranks as one of the Arab world’s most expensive cities. Prices are rising and the sales tax has climbed to 16 percent even as wages stagnate.

The toll of so many refugees has elicited complaints from citizens and government alike, with public figures insisting there is little more that the Jordanian government can give on its own, and that the burden will soon become unmanageable without greater Western support in the form of assistance and resettlement.

The Foreign Ministry official warns that, without additional donations, the ongoing crisis threatens to subvert Jordan’s heritage as a safe haven for neighbors fleeing violence in their home countries. 

When you have less, you share less.”

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