By Hayat al-Dbaes, Nada Abu Qourah
Amman - Among the countries that accepted Syrian refugees en-masse, Jordan stands out for not succumbing to hate speech and anti-refugee policies; instead, it represents a success story by continuing to welcome refugees at both the official and grassroots levels.
Jordan is the third-largest host of Syrian refugees today, behind Turkey and Lebanon. Over one million Syrian citizens live in Jordan, 654,000 of them being UNHCR-registered refugees, according to the latest data published on November 7.
More than eight years after the first waves of refugees arrived from Syria, the relationship between Jordanian citizens and Syrians refugees continues to be characterized by inclusiveness and tolerance.
Such tolerance can be attributed, according to Ibrahim Khalidi, a resident of Mafraq province in northern Jordan, to the “historical relationship between the two countries” and the tribal ties that extend across the border.
Even as Jordan is experiencing a severe economic crisis and massive unemployment, reaching as high as 19.2% during the first quarter of 2019, the “refugee card has not been exploited, and public sentiment has not soured on refugees. This is in stark contrast to Turkey and Lebanon, where refugees have experienced a public backlash as the countries’ economies worsen.
In Turkey, the presence of Syrian refugees have become one of the most controversial topics in domestic political discourse. In the Istanbul local elections last July, both the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates tried to stake out a hard line on refugees.
Such rhetoric, along with other political and economic factors, has led to an increase in Turkish anti-refugee sentiment. This sentiment is being endorsed at the highest level as the Turkish government uses the refugee population as a tool to threaten Europe and to obtain international assistance that has been on the decline recently.
Similarly in Lebanon, it seems as if “the society, at all levels and among all sects has been contaminated with racism,” Ali al-Homsi, a refugee in Lebanon said. 2019 was “a milestone in the escalation of inflammatory speech against refugees and calls to expel them from the country,” he told Syria Direct in July.
A history of hospitality
Walking through the streets and markets of Amman, the capital of Jordan, it is common to hear Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan dialects, all countries from which Jordan has received large numbers of refugees since 2011. Before that, it welcomed Iraqis fleeing the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
“The country has a long history of welcoming people coming from other countries, including Circassians and Chechnyans,” according to Jumanah al-Masaeed, a Jordanian resident of Mafraq province. It thus “fits with Jordanians’ character that they welcomed Syrians, especially since the two people have close ties that predate the redrawing of the borders [under the Sykes-Picot Agreement].”
All of these factors have helped prevent the racism that affects refugees in other countries from taking root in Jordan and have allowed refugees to secure a decent life through private sector employment.
As a result, despite the pressure placed on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure by Syrian refugees and the “drop in the international contribution to Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis to 20% [of the required aid] this year, harmony between Jordanians and Syrians still exists,” economist Hossam Ayesh told Syria Direct.
A regulated presence
In addition to Jordan’s history, there are cultural factors that explain Jordan’s unique relationship with Syrian refugees, Ayesh noted.
The fact that Turks and Syrians do not speak the same language “creates an atmosphere of misunderstanding” there, according to Ayesh. While in Lebanon there is a fear that Syrians could “change the demographic structure” of the country.
In Jordan, however, “Syrians are distributed across many provinces, and in various camps, in a way that is less harmful,” Ayesh said. “Their presence is generally regulated,” something that relieves the pressure on local host communities.
Nonetheless, there may be some negative attitudes in blue-collar professions, “as a result of the increased competition between the Jordanian workers, especially those unemployed, and their Syrian counterparts,” according to Ayesh, “which has created some tension between the two groups.”
This tension, however, “remains confined within these limits, and has not affected relations between Jordanians and Syrian refugees in general.”
The Jordanian government and international organizations support integration
Stressing that Jordan “has gotten past the sensitivity of competition between Syrians and Jordanians for jobs,” Jumanah al-Masaeed painted an optimistic picture of the relationship between the two citizenries in Mafraq province, which hosts al-Zaatari refugee camp, one of the world’s largest refugee camps.
International organizations, she explained, have created “job opportunities for the youth of both countries” in the province. This is reflected in the private sector, as, for example, “a Syrian refugee might teach his profession to a Jordanian citizen, and once the latter starts their own business or project, they will employ Syrian refugees.”
Many international organizations in Jordan are targeting Jordanians and Syrians at the same time. Their activities range from psychological and social support to women empowerment, as well as providing logistical and financial support for micro-projects, as is the case of the “Makani” project.
In addition to providing psychological support, “Makani” “helps increase cohesion between Jordanians and Syrians,” Ida Abu Hlayla, one of the workers in the project, told Syria Direct.
In addition, the Jordanian government has played a pivotal role in the inclusion of Syrian refugees. Despite the weak international response to the needs of refugees and the recent decline in funding, it did not force refugees to return to Syria after the Syria-Jordan land border was reopened.
Since the reopening of the border in August of 2018, no more than 35,000 refugees have returned to Syria, according to UNHCR.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan's Direct Aid Program.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley, Calvin Wilder and Will Christou.