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Jordan and the Refugee Crisis: Missteps and Missed Opportunities

Jordan has a history of welcoming refugees, opening its borders for Palestinians fleeing the Nakba in 1948, Iraqis fleeing in 2006, and now the Syrians who have been steadily pouring into the country since 2012. Despite a massive influx of Syrian refugees, the Hashemite Kingdom has reiterated that it maintains its open door policy. In 2014, the government released the National Resilience Plan (NRP) to mitigate the effects of the Syrian crisis on Jordan and Host Communities. Jordan’s 1998 memorandum of understanding with UNHCR outlines the extent of Jordan’s refugee policy for non-Palestinians.

This policy does not include the right to housing, employment, public education, freedom of movement, and public relief and assistance. As national systems and infrastructure have been stretched thin, Jordan has begun restricting protection space for Syrian refugees, terminating their healthcare provisions and limiting their freedom of movement.

Jordan needs to shift this focus to either incorporating refugees into Jordanian society or a third country resettlement. Secondly, how the “negative impacts” of the refugee population on the Jordanian economy have been largely overblown and carry drastic policy implications are examined. Lastly, Jordan’s recent border restrictions and how they represent a larger disenfranchisement with the refugee response and international support. A more integrated approach would ensure that Jordan can keep its open door policy without suffering economic and social consequences for its generosity.

Worsening conditions

Jordan is currently host to more than 630,000 Syrian refugees. To respond to this overwhelming demand, the host’s primary focus has been on maintaining Jordan’s largely favorable protection environment while straining already limited resources. The Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps house a large number of Syrian refugees, however, these camps only represent a minority of the total Syrian refugee population. Nearly 84 percent of Syrian refugees have settled into some of Jordan’s most vulnerable communities in the north such as Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq.

With over half of the Syrian refugees under the age of 18, efforts to educate this population have been extremely challenging. In order to meet this demand, Jordan has opened 98 additional double-shifted schools to help reduce the pressure on classroom size. Similarly, stress on Jordan’s healthcare system has led to restricted services for Syrian refugees.

Initially, the government guaranteed access to health care centers. However, in November 2014, the government repealed free medical services, citing a strained healthcare system and budgetary demands.

Among all the debates regarding the treatment of Syrian refugees, the right to access livelihood has been the most contentious. While Syrian refugees are not legally allowed to work in Jordan, 160,000 Syrians have contributed to the growth of the informal sector. The consequences have been a contracted formal sector and a downward pressure on wages that increased poverty in Jordan’s most vulnerable communities. Removing barriers to employment can introduce Syrian investment to the worsening formal job sector, creating jobs and helping lower Jordanian unemployment levels.

Need for a long-term solution

There is no doubting the magnitude of the impact the Syrian refugee crisis has had on Jordan. The financial requirements for UNHCR’S Jordan operation have increased from $62.8 million in 2010 to a revised 2015 budget of a little over $400 million, with the largest portion devoted to the emergency response for Syrian refugees. Jordan’s government officials have regularly pointed to the Syrian refugees as a critical factor responsible for Jordan’s economic problems. However, many of the symptoms of Jordan’s economic instability such as water shortages, shrinking GDP, high unemployment, and poverty rates all predated the Syrian crisis.

It is convenient for government officials and Jordanian citizens to focus on the negatives; however, the Syrian refugees have actually benefited the economy in several ways. Syrians have increased consumer demand, helped bring in more foreign aid, and contributed to job creation. U.S. economic aid to Jordan reached $700 million in both 2014 and 2015, almost double the amount provided in 2011. Along with this boost in international aid, the influx of Syrian refugees has also propelled public investment along with growth in the manufacturing, construction, transport, communication, and service sectors that increased the real GDP growth rate by 2.7 percent in 2012. These investments have the potential to pay off huge dividends for a country that was facing significant economic troubles before the crisis.

A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria, on June 3, 2014. (Pan Chaoyue/Xinhua)
A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria, on June 3, 2014. (Pan Chaoyue/Xinhua)

Nevertheless, the increased consumption of subsidized water, gas, electricity, and consumer goods have had a marked effect on the Jordan economy. Jordan’s economic slump is continuing; schools are overcrowded and hospitals are understaffed. Jordan’s main issues – poor housing, limited access to water, and lack of income – can be addressed by investing in its labor force and increasing the construction of low-income housing. In 2015, UNHCR and UNDP released the Regional Refugee Plan, which represents an emerging paradigm of integrating humanitarian aid development resources to address the needs of both displaced populations and host communities. As the crisis continues, both Jordan and the international community need to shift their focus from humanitarian emergency-response assistance to long-term development resources.

Borders and security concerns

In order to meet these challenges, it is imperative that Jordan and the international community work together to present an accurate portrayal of the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on the Jordanian economy. Frustrated citizens have demanded limited competition from Syrian refugees and constrained the Jordanian government in its ability to respond to the crisis. Public sentiment has been influenced by placing the blame on refugees for the substantial economic troubles the Kingdom was already facing prior to the crisis. As these tensions rise, it is of critical importance that Jordan resist political pressure to limit the protection space for refugees and provide human security and asylum for the Syrian refugees.

Unfortunately, however, Jordan has limited its service delivery and restricted Syrian refugee access to Jordanian territory in response to public pressure. This has culminated in nearly 17,000 Syrians stuck in remote areas at Jordan’s northeastern border. About 11,000 Syrians located in Rukban are experiencing worsening humanitarian conditions nearby the Azraq camp, which has the capacity to house additional refugees. Jordan has cited security concerns for these restrictions and Mohamed Momani, Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communication and Government Spokesperson, has stated that the borders will remain closed until Jordan is confident they are secure While security is indeed a legitimate concern for a country located in a conflict-ridden region, these measures may be more representative of public frustrations.

UNHCR has offered a solution to manage Jordan’s security concerns through proper assessments of individuals. Furthermore, UNHCR, in recognizing the seriousness of the matter, has proposed upgrading the security of Azraq camp’s registration area. This would allow for the comprehensive screening of the entire border population there after an initial screening by the Mafraq Border Guards.

These security concerns can be addressed without increasing the restriction of protection spaces, which would not alleviate the strain of the crisis and would only serve to further exacerbate Jordan’s long-term problems. Jordan has made massive contributions in hosting over 630,000 refugees, and this policy has indeed placed a heavy strain on a country already suffering through a lack of resources and a struggling economy. Regardless, Jordan should continue their generosity in hosting refugees and leverage the Syrian refugee crisis to address issues that affect the entire Kingdom.

Faced with donor fatigue and underfunded humanitarian assistance, Jordan has lost faith in international support. Rather than continuing to restrict open spaces, Jordan should resume its open door policy with increased screening measures and count on the international community to deliver financial support as it has in the past. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has urged governments to pledge more financial support for refugees and host countries, and increase the number of resettlement places for Syrians. This initiative is especially crucial because a shortfall in international aid likely means Jordan will continue to erode the protection spaces for Syrian refugees and limit their access to essential goods.


Jordan’s NRP has not successfully mitigated the effects of the Syrian crisis on Jordan and Jordanian host communities. Rather, it has fostered rising public tension, worsened economic woes, and is currently restricting access to protective spaces for Syrian refugees. Jordan needs to act expeditiously to ensure it handles this situation and avoid further deterioration of a country facing inflation, high unemployment, and limited sources of internal revenue. Thus far, leadership has opted to mitigate political pressure in the short term instead of leveraging this crisis into policy that could help the country solve its economic woes. The Kingdom has a history of taking in refugees and the Syrian refugee crisis is arguably the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era. Jordan and the international community must focus on long-term sustainable solutions for both the Syrian population and host communities in order to overcome this crisis.