Alternative voices on the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan

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lenner book coverBy Katharina Lenner (MW RSCAS Fellow 2015-2016) and Bashar Al-Khatib (*)

Over the past five years we have been privy to many private and professional conversations about refugees in Jordan, as well as being avid observers of official and media discourse on the Syrian refugee crisis. During this time we have often felt that critical voices were missing from these discussions, voices in solidarity with the refugees rather than across from them, and we hoped for an opportunity to somehow give them a platform from which to speak. We have found such an opportunity in this book produced with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Through this publication, we seek to engage with some of the most common tropes of the discussion, which tend to portray the Syrian presence in Jordan as negative and burdensome, and to offer alternative perspectives. We thought the best way to do this was by letting a number of Jordanian and Syrian voices ‒ people that are personally and/or professionally connected with the Syrian and other refugee crises in Jordan ‒ take centre stage. Our hope is that together these voices will draw a more nuanced picture of the Syrian presence in Jordan, highlight the positive contributions of Syrians in Jordan, and correct some common misconceptions.

The estimated number of Syrian refugees in Jordan varies. The UNHCR counts 630,000 registered refugees in November 2015, while the Jordanian government sets the number of Syrians in the country (whether registered refugees or not) at around 1.5 million. The greater part of the most recent influx happened in 2012-2013, and in spite of notable population movements back to Syria the reported numbers continue to grow slowly. Whatever the precise number, the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan has certainly reshaped daily life, politics and the economy in the country over the past five years.

Yet this is not the first time Jordan has witnessed a large-scale population increase due to conflicts in other states. In fact, the entire history of Jordan is intertwined with forced population movements. In the early phase of state-formation, Circassians, Chechens and Armenians made many important contributions to the country’s evolving economic and political structures. This was followed by massive movements from Palestine to Jordan in 1948, and from the West Bank to the East Bank of Jordan in 1967. As a result, 2.1 million registered Palestinian refugees and a large number of displaced persons currently reside in Jordan. Many, but not all, of them were given Jordanian citizenship, turning them into a special population group sometimes referred to as ‘refugee-citizens’. In the 1990s and 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also came to Jordan, establishing themselves in the country, at least temporarily, in order to escape the violence and persecution then being meted out in Iraq. All of these population influxes, as well as other, more minor movements, have left their mark on Jordan.

The articulation of concern has accompanied each new wave of arrivals. Today it is commonplace to hear public pronouncements and media reports repeating refrains like “we do not have the resources to accommodate yet another group of people”, or “we already have the Iraqis, and the Palestinians.” This is frequently connected to statements suggesting that Syrians are a burden on the country’s economy, infrastructure, resources, and public services.

Nevertheless, various forms of support and solidarity exist in Jordan, not just from the international community but also from Jordanian public bodies, non-governmental organisations, initiatives, and individuals. Many of these remain relatively hidden, and are only heard about and discussed among very specialised audiences. This book seeks to change that by bringing such alternative voices out into the open. It is based on the conviction that their insights not only contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the issues Jordan currently faces, but also draw a brighter picture of the Syrian presence in Jordan.

This book assembles five such voices, each of which sheds light on different aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. Daoud Kuttab, the founder of AmmanNet / Radio Al-Balad, discusses common anti-Syrian media discourses and their background. He also highlights attempts to counter them, for example the establishment of joint Jordanian-Syrian teams of journalists. Yusuf Mansur, Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, then provides us with an alternative perspective on the economic contribution of refugees in Jordan. He emphasises the positive contribution that these population influxes have left on the Jordanian political economy in the past, and the immense benefits Jordan could gain by properly integrating Syrian refugees. Subsequently, three members of the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU) provide us with in-depth insights into the situation of Syrian women in Jordan, and the organisation’s attempts to strengthen solidarity between women (and men) in the country, no matter what their citizenship or origins. Following that, Wael Qaddour, a Syrian playwright and theatre director now based in Jordan, speaks about the experience of being a Syrian intellectual in exile. He questions the refugee frame and the way it cements an image of Syrians in Jordan as victims, arguing that this results in the restriction of Syrians’ ability to move and pursue independent livelihood strategies. Finally, Matar Saqer, former spokesperson of UNRWA, reflects on the comparison between Syrian and Palestinian refugees often found in the public discourse. While he finds certain areas of overlap, he insists on the crucial differences that characterise both refugee experiences.

The interviews assembled here represent five individual perspectives on the effects of forced migration on Jordan. Their purpose is to start a conversation. We know there are many other voices out there that could further contribute to a more nuanced discussion about the Syrian presence. We hope that those assembled here will inspire others to speak up as well, and that together they can rethink the Syrian refugee crisis and imagine a future for Jordan in which Syrians no longer need to live in the shadows.

Link to the whole book in English and in Arabic

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme