King’s Gambit

The economic turmoil caused by Jordan’s “strategic refocus”

01 August 2019
Jordan’s refugee camps accommodate nearly seven hundred thousand registered Syrians and over two million Palestinian refugees.
Jordan’s refugee camps accommodate nearly seven hundred thousand registered Syrians and over two million Palestinian refugees.

On 20 March, a Bangladeshi migrant working at a small eatery in the coastal Jordanian city of Aqaba complained to me about how little the jobs there paid, leaving “hardly anything to send home,” even as he conceded that “at home, I might not even get a job.” It was a sentiment echoed by not only the majority of migrant workers I spoke to—mostly Palestinians, Syrians, South Asians, Filipinos and Egyptians—but by the Jordanians themselves. There was palpable disappointment in the air because of the lack of jobs and meagre salaries. The government holds an ongoing refugee crisis partially responsible for the domestic situation, but the residents of Jordan no longer buy this explanation.

During an interview at the World Economic Forum, on 24 January, the prime minister, Omar Razzaz, admitted that Jordan was suffering from “neighbourhood effects”—a reference to the Syrian crisis, which has reshaped the demographics of the country, where one in three people is now a refugee. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey together host over three quarters of the 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees, who have fled their country following the crisis that has unfolded since 2011.

Although Turkey has taken in most of the Syrian refugees, Jordan and Lebanon—despite their relatively smaller size—host over a thousand Syrian refugees per 100,000 habitants. While Jordan’s government and the UNHCR have tried to ensure that the majority of the nearly seven hundred thousand registered Syrians in the country are housed outside of the country’s refugee camps, recent reports indicate that 80 percent of those outside the camps live below the poverty line, and more than half are unemployed.

Jordan has for long been a hospitable country, accepting refugees from many war-torn countries. The kingdom accommodated over 1.5 million Palestinian refugees following the Arab–Israeli wars of 1948–49 and 1967. After it withdrew its claim to the West Bank, in 1988, the Jordanian government provided these refugees with passports for travel purposes, but did not grant them citizenship or permanent residency.

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, a comparatively smaller exodus of Palestinians came from Kuwait, in addition to a million Iraqi refugees. According to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, of the five million registered Palestinian refugees, over two million live in Jordan—a country with a population of around ten million. When added to Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent, they amount to over half the country’s population, according to unofficial estimates.

Sreejith Sugunan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has previously written for Himal Southasian, the Indian Express and The Wire.

Keywords: Jordan Syrian refugee crisis refugee United Nations