The influx of Syrian refugees has seriously altered the demography of Jordan. As the refugee population continues to grow, pressure mounts on the already weakened Jordanian economy. Against this background, a recent reform was introduced which aims for the integration of Syrian refugees into the Jordanian labour market. However, the sluggish implementation of these measures calls their validity into question.
Children stroll down the dusty road, dragging their school bags along. People are busy buying groceries, hunting for bargains or haggling with vendors. The smell of fried oil and falafel clouds the air between competing food counters. The lively road that leads through the Za’atari refugee camp is known as “Champs Elysée.” Almost anything can be found here, from staple foods to wedding dresses. However, just a few steps away from this commercial artery lies a shipping container which serves as a temporary home for those who have fled the Syrian war.
The Za’atari refugee camp is situated in the northern Jordan, just a few kilometres south of the Syrian border. It was established as a temporary response to the massive influx of Syrians seeking refuge in July 2012. Since then, it has grown rapidly and emerged as one of Jordan’s largest “cities.” Today, approximately 80% of the camp’s 80.000 residents are women and children. Recently, shipping containers have replaced tents as the camp’s primary housing structures. The expansion of physical infrastructure, and growing provision of education, health care, and other basic services suggests that the camp will remain open into the foreseeable future.
Za’atari is one of many Jordanian refugee camps. In addition to the Palestinian refugee camps which were built after the Arab-Israeli war, new camps have cropped up in response to the region’s numerous crises. Yet, despite their growing numbers, only about 20% of the refugees in Jordan reside in camps. The majority live dispersed throughout Jordanian society, often under harsh conditions. “A lot of people take advantage of the misery the people find themselves in,” states Hebba Zayyan who is working as a coordinator for UN Women Jordan. “People rent their flats for tremendously high prices, but the living standards are very low.” It is almost impossible to find a decent accommodation without the support of organisations.
In addition to the poor living standards, the lack of refugee integration into the Jordanian society constitutes another major problem. Until recently, only about 1% of the Syrian refugees had a work permit. However, “The Jordan Compact,” a new holistic agreement between the Hashemite Kingdom and the International Community, introduced administrative changes which should facilitate the application process for work permits for Syrian refugees. Furthermore, it grants them the right to formalise their existing businesses and to set up new ones.
The Compact was announced at the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference in February 2016 in London. In exchange for Jordan’s structural and legal reforms, the International Community promised financial support, as well as a facilitated access to the EU market. Pledges made in London amount to approximately $700 million of grants, with a prospect for renewal in the following years.
Since the beginning of March this year, the Jordanian government started to allow Syrian refugees to use asylum-seeker cards in order to obtain work permits. Until then this was only possible with a passport and a proof of legal entry into the country. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently launched an e-learning programme for Syrian refugees which should advice them in understanding their rights and responsibilities under Jordanian law.
All these measures target a gradual opening of the Jordanian labour market to Syrian refugees. Last year the Jordanian King Abdullah II announced that Jordan will provide 200.000 work places for Syrian refugees. However, the situation on the spot proves that the implementation lags behind the stated goals. “Out of the 200.000 promised work places only 50.000 were reached so far,” explains Zayyan. Furthermore, the work places that were put into place can only be found in sectors that are usually shunned by Jordanians and were done primarily by Egyptian guest workers.
Even though the influx of refugees is responsible for a population growth of more than 20%, resentments towards refugees and tensions between ethnic groups are, compared to other countries, still low. “It is merely a question about finding a job and coping with everyday life,” states Mohammed T. who works as a driver. Austrian Ambassador Dr. Michael Desser affirms this statement: “In general the attitude towards the Syrian refugees is quite positive. There is an overall awareness that the country also profits by its new inhabitants. However, with an increasing population, people begin to fear that there will be an impairment of the quality of resources. In addition, a lot of people see illegal refugee workers as competitors on the labour market.”
Yet, the question remains how the small and relatively weak Jordanian economy will deal with hosting such a high number of refugees in the near future. The duration of the Syrian war has put pressure on the state budget at many levels. The education and health sector has already been reformed. For example, access to free health care has been restricted and classes for Syrian children are now offered only in the afternoon, to avoid an overuse of the capacities of the Jordanian educational system.
In 2016 King Abdullah II stated that the situation has reached its peak and that Jordan can no longer carry the refugee burden alone. This year in April, the Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki announced that “Jordan is fatigued and has reached its maximum carrying capacity”. He further stated that “without the continued support of the international community this will negatively impact our overall ability to continue providing necessary services to Syrians.” Reports of illegal deportations of Syrian refugees have been noted recently. Human Rights Watch documented “numerous cases” of Jordan deporting Syrian asylum seekers back to Syria, which would amount to a violation of international law.
Although many deficits can be detected in the Jordanian refugee policy, one must admit that the country has shown real efforts in addressing the emerging problems. As one of the driest regions in the world, Jordan faces resource limitations on many levels. Nevertheless, it hosts one of the highest numbers of refugees worldwide in relation to its population. The unforeseeably long duration of the Syrian war has exceeded Jordan’s capacities and it is unclear how the government will deal with future challenges. However, it is certain that tensions will rise in the absence of a greater support from the international community.