February 4, 2015
A country of seven million, Jordan has struggled socially and economically to accommodate an estimated one million Syrian refugees who have flocked across the border since unrest began four years ago.
Periodic protests have flared up across the kingdom over the past few years, some demanding that Jordan close its border, and others calling for the expulsion of the Syrian refugee population. One demonstration in Mafraq, Jordan last December took place under the rubric “Syrian Asylum is Threatening Jordan’s Stability,” reported pro-opposition media outlet Enab Baladi.
Syrians and Jordanians are competing for limited job opportunities in the Arab world’s most expensive city. The reason for tension between Syrians and their hosts is economic, says Dr. Vanessa Iaria, an Italian social researcher in Amman who specializes in the relationship between Syrian refugees and Jordanians.
Part of the problem is that “ Syrian refugee displacement in Jordan is not temporary but protracted,” Iaria, who works at the Council for British Research in the Levant, tells Syria Direct’s Muatasem Jamal.
That means “offering refugees permanent shelters instead of camps, as well as more opportunities for integration with the host society.”
Q: Through your studies, how do you see the relationship between Syrian refugees and their Jordanian host community?
It has been five years now since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, and according to recent estimates, there are 800,000 to one million Syrians in Jordan. As far as they could, Jordanians have demonstrated hospitality towards the Syrian refugees, despite the fact that Jordan is a country of limited resources.
The presence of a large number of refugees in need of protection and material assistance represents a burden on Jordanian society. Despite this, we did not witness any form of radical violence against Syrian refugees; rather, we have seen solidarity, hospitality and tolerance from the Jordanian hosts towards the Syrians. As I saw here in Jordan, there are family ties as well as linguistic and cultural relations between Syrians refugees and the members of Jordanian host communities.
The tribal connections between Syrian and Jordanian peoples living in border towns and villages of the two neighboring countries obviously facilitate Jordanians’ reception of Syrians and their willingness to host them and provide them with assistance.
Q: Despite the lack of actual clashes, there are still tensions between Syrians and Jordanians here?
Yes, there are tensions, which are mainly due to economic reasons such as increasing inflation, increasing prices of housing and goods in the local market and competition for limited resources and opportunities. I saw also that the Syrians are very skilled, they have accumulated professional experience and tend to be more hardworking than many of their Jordanian counterparts.
This is inevitably having a negative impact on the social relations between the two groups. In my opinion, it is important to address these economic problems to prevent political and social tensions between the two groups. One way to address this issue is to provide economic assistance and opportunities to improve the well-being of the refugees and their hosts. Syrians and Jordanians should talk more and share their experiences and they should talk about possible solutions for the situation in Syria.
Q: It is clear that the Syrian crisis is a long-term crisis, and the Syrian refugees will stay for a long time in their host communities. How can we improve the co-existence between Syrian refugees and Jordanians?
I think that better co-existence can be facilitated through the implementation of policies and projects that take into account the fact that the Syrian refugee displacement in Jordan is not temporary but protracted. Given that, it is important to give Syrians the chance to live in decent places and shelters, not in camps which are not suitable places for human existence.
It is also important to give Syrian refugees the opportunity to integrate economically and socially because they cannot continue depending on the scarce humanitarian assistance provided by the host state and the international community to survive and rebuild their lives.
That way, they would not have to depend on local Jordanian resources and they can be productive and use their skills to participate in the development of their host country.
Q: Many Syrian refugees see migration to Europe a way of escaping from their suffering in their host communities. Is immigration to the West the only solution for the Syrian refugees?
It is important for Syrian refugees not to wait and waste their precious time in the hope that one day they will be resettled to Europe through the UN, because many of them will never be resettled, as it already happened with the Iraqis.
Europe at the moment is in a particularly difficult economic period and most immigrants who reached southern European countries affected by the economic crisis receive little assistance and are not able to find jobs.
Syrians dream of going to the West in search of better conditions and opportunities but the reality there is different; the situation is much more difficult now and many people there are struggling to actually survive.
Q: What does the future look like for Syrian refugees in Jordan?
This depends on the assistance that the host government will receive from the international community in terms of funding to shoulder the economic burden imposed by the huge number of refugees.
Q: Do you think that the Syrian refugees will go back to their country when the situation there stabilizes?
When I conducted interviews with Syrians here in Jordan, I saw that they are very attached to their homeland. When I asked whether they want to return to their country, they said that there is no alternative or replacement for one’s own country and they hope that the situation in Syria improves so they can go back and participate in the reconstruction of their own society.
Q: Are Syrians managing or unable to support themselves according to your research?
A good number of Syrians whom I interviewed depend on humanitarian aid from UNHCR and other NGOs. In addition to the humanitarian assistance, many Syrians rely on money transfers, borrowing from families and friends and on the money they manage to earn working in Jordan’s informal economy. Through these financial resources, Syrians seem to fulfill their most basic needs.
Q: Are there popular misconceptions about Syrians in Jordan depending on the conclusions you have drawn from your research?
There is a widespread belief among the less advantaged Jordanians that the Syrian refugees are receiving all the assistance that they need from the international community and that their living conditions in Jordan are therefore better than those of their Jordanian hosts.
Some Syrian participants in my research reported experiencing forms of maltreatment and exploitation from Jordanian landlords who ask Syrian tenants to pay higher rents, believing that humanitarian organizations provide all refugees with cash assistance for rents.
In some cases Jordanian landlords have shown sympathy towards the refugees allowing them to pay the rent with significant delay. In other cases, unfortunately, landlords were less understanding and re-appropriated their properties when the refugees were unable to pay rents, leaving entire families in very vulnerable conditions.
Q: Does the traumatized psychological situation of Syrian refugees affect how they deal with their host community?
Yes, there is a great need for psychological support among the Syrian refugee community. Psychology and psychosocial assistance are generally stigmatized in Middle Eastern societies where people in need of this kind of support are considered crazy or unable to live in society.
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