contributor perspectives

Jordan Balances Budgets and Borders

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READFeb 7, 2018 | 18:42 GMT
The influx of refugees, including Syrians fleeing their country's civil war, is straining Jordan's resources and trying its citizens' patience.

Refugee children at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on January 28 in Zaatari, Jordan.

(Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)
  • Over the past 70 years, Jordan has accepted large numbers of refugees from its war-torn neighbors.
  • Though the majority of Jordan's citizens have largely accepted the country's immigration policies, the country bears a cost for their continuation.
  • Some citizens may be dissatisfied, but will continue to support King Abdullah II because of his stance on Jerusalem.

The news media is replete with information about immigration from Syria to Europe and, as small as the numbers are, to the United States. In 2016 the United States admitted only 14,333 Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), a number that amounts to just four-thousandths of a percent of the total U.S. population. Germany has accepted 360,000 Syrians to date, 0.4 percent of its total population, while Turkey is hosting more than 2,814,600 Syrian refugees, 3.75 percent of its population. But the 1.27 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan today make up a full 13 percent of the kingdom's population.

Over the past 70 years, Jordan has welcomed refugees from war-torn geographies nearby. Many remain in refugee settlements, but others have settled permanently in the country. The Jordanian government and its citizens — as hospitable a people as most in the region — bear a substantial socio-economic burden in caring for the Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians who wind up in their midst. During a recent visit to the kingdom, where I've lived and whose people and cultures I deeply respect, I was surprised to hear local residents talk about the personal sacrifices they feel they are making to maintain the well-being of displaced people. Even some of my most compassionate and hospitable friends there are beginning to experience discomfort and wonder how long their country's charity can last.

Bearing the Burden in Silence

According to the UNHCR, 80 percent of refugees in Jordan today live below the poverty line. As that population grows, new stresses affect the local, native population — Jordanian Jordanians, as they sometimes call themselves. The price of white pita bread, for example — a staple in virtually every home — went up nearly 60 percent during the last weekend of January after 20 years of subsidies ended. That followed other austerity measures and a tax hike guided by the International Monetary Fund designed to help reduce Jordan's public debt. But apart from a protest in Salt, a small city west of the capital of Amman, the Jordanian Jordanians' response to the price rises was generally self-contained.

"Beware the silence," a friend said over dinner in Amman last month just before the cuts went into effect. "The people will not protest cutbacks in food subsidies or the advantage given to Syrian refugee families. We will support the king because he is strong on Jerusalem. But inside we are angry."

I'll get to Jerusalem. But first, what advantages does she mean?

Helping Neighbors in Need

To avoid a humanitarian crisis of hunger and thirst, aid organizations such as the World Food Program distribute dry goods, bread and vouchers to Syrian refugees. The vouchers include coupons worth about $14. Jordanians tell me some Syrian refugees will sell them to locals at a premium. At the same time, water — already scarce at an annual supply of 145,000 liters (38,305 gallons) per person — is rumored to be diverted from local residents to refugees.

My friend travels the length of Jordan frequently, visiting women's centers and monitoring youth programs, including programs that serve refugee populations. She checks in with Syrian refugees, some of whom have integrated into Jordanian society with help from family members who came before the war, and some of whom live in tents or trailers in sprawling, ragged, overcrowded temporary camps. Everywhere she goes she engages people in conversation.

"Don't you want to go back now that Aleppo is secured?" she asked in a training meeting with 15 professional Syrian women. Some of the women had been judges in Syria, others were professors.

"They all said, 'no,' they didn't want to leave Jordan," she told me. Many of the children that are illiterate, she said, arrived in the country that way. "It's not that Jordan doesn't offer an education to refugees. Syria didn't provide it to its own," she stated. Some Jordanian primary school students now get only a half-day of class each day. Syrian students get the other half.

"How long can Jordanians sacrifice?" my friend wants to know.

The attitudes I describe here may not be universal. The stories may have more rumor to them than truth. Yet surely there is some truth. And in a region where perception often is acceptable as reality, this idea about refugees from Syria perpetuates tension and ill will.

"How long can Jordanians sacrifice?" my friend wants to know.

Still, so long as King Abdullah II stands strong for Jerusalem, it's likely that Jordanians will support him and his government. Jerusalem is a point of pride and heritage for Jordanians of all stripes — Christian, Muslim, Palestinian and the rest. Jordan held the holy city after the creation of the State of Israel until 1967, and since then, the country's king has been "custodian" of Jerusalem's Aqsa Mosque Complex, or Haram al-Sharif ("Noble Sanctuary"). For Jordan, the city is a symbol of the sacred and of staying power.

King Abdullah II's immediate reaction to the United States' announcement that it would relocate its embassy to Jerusalem was to advise President Donald Trump that the move would have "dangerous repercussions for regional stability." In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on Feb. 4, he was more diplomatic: "I think we have to look to the future of what we want for Jerusalem. Is Jerusalem a city that ends up dividing us, which I think would be catastrophic for mankind, or is it a city of hope that brings us together?"

Investing in Jordan's Priorities

Whatever the answer to his questions, Jordan will continue in the meantime to juggle the needs of its refugees with those of its citizens, balancing budgets and borders to preserve stability in uncertain times. On Feb. 1, the country's government, along with EU and U.N. agencies, endorsed the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis. The initiative "seeks to compensate Jordan for the burden it has borne due to regional crises by securing sufficient grants and concessional financing to address the general budget needs over the next three years." Recognizing the hard realities and rumors coexisting in his nation, the Jordanian prime minister declared, "Together we must invest in Jordan's priorities to help the government provide for those who sought refuge within our borders without undermining the needs of our citizens and our development. This is critical for Jordan's stability, security, and resilience."

Offsetting the cost of providing haven to those in need and maintaining a national standard of living, however, is itself an expensive endeavor. Price tag: $7.3 billion.

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