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Can Jordan Policy Response to the Syria Refugee Crisis be Sustained?



With over 103 million people forcibly displaced people worldwide, Syria provides the highest number of refugees and people needing international protect at 6.8 million according to UNHCR[i]. This is a pressing issue for human development and the rights of people who are constantly oppressed and inherently vulnerable from the civil unrest within the country. With about 69 per cent of refugees and other people in need of international protection living in countries neighbouring their country of origin[ii], it is quite common for many Syrian refugees to flock to nearby borders such as Jordan in search for safety and a chance of having some acquaintance with a normal life.


Does a framework exist?

Jordanian being a friend and support to its Arab member states has given tremendous commitment to support these refugees. The country understands the situation of refugees as a minority group and their role in the country. Although Jordan does not have a clear Refugee policy, it does present instruments in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding signed with the United Nations Human Rights Commission. In addition, the country signed onto the three-year Syria RRP6 plan in 2014 and again the Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan in December 2020 with the aim to curtail the impact of the Syrian crisis as a matter of national interest for Jordanians as well as Syrians alike.


Despite the varying debates on the definition of a refugee, the core principle when dealing with refugees that has been widely accepted is the understanding of non-refoulement i.e not turning persons away. Article 21(1) of the Jordanian Constitution provides that “political refugees shall not be extradited on account of their political beliefs or for their defense of liberty.”[iii] However, it does not appear that Jordan has enacted any clear legislation that regulates the status of refugees, including those who seek asylum for political reasons. Furthermore, the country is not a signatory, nor has it become a party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 or its related 1967 Protocol.


Moreover, it must be noted that through a distinct loophole, the Jordanian Constitution provides limited protection against extradition for political asylum seekers but by law Jordanian has no mechanisms to really address refugees and asylum seekers. With the absence of special legislation addressing their status, refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan are still subject to Law No. 24 of 1973 concerning Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs. Significantly, this Law applies to all foreigners without distinction between refugees and nonrefugees, thus giving them some level of coverage to justify their existence in the country. Moreover, article 2 defines a foreigner as anyone who does not have Jordanian nationality. Consequently, the Law refers to refugees in some of its articles but does not define them as a separate category to leverage comprehensive rights and belonging in the country.


Nevertheless, Jordan attempted to provide a more precise roadmap to its position on refugees when in 1998 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Jordan and the UNHCR and partially amended in 2014. In the absence of an international or national legal refugee instrument in force in the country, this MoU establishes the parameters for cooperation between UNHCR and the Government of Jordan. This hailed a significant milestone as the MOU can be understood as the guiding instrument that provides the current framework for the treatment of refugees in the country. It also functioned as a catalyst for Jordan’s later commitment to the Rapid Response Plan 6[iv]in 2014 with Lebanon and Iraq as a critical response to the overwhelming challenges of the Syrian Refugee/ Humanitarian crisis that began in 2011. Subsequently, the country gave a further commitment to the Syrian Humanitarian Response plan in 2020 that further expanded the provision of the work around three strategic objectives of saving lives, enhancing protection, and increasing resilience and access to services primarily for Syrian Refugees[v].


Although there are many cases of countries returning refugees due to many geo-political and domestic factors at play, for most parts Jordan as an upper middle-income country in the Middle East, has been very embracing of refugees. According to the UNHCR, as 2019 came to close, the number of refugees registered in Jordan stood at 744,795 persons; among them approximately 655,000 Syrians, 67,000 Iraqis, 15,000 Yemenis, 6,000 Sudanis and 2,500 refugees from a total of 52 other nationalities.[vi]


Other strategic objectives when considering refugee rights and status includes basic humanitarian needs such as provision of safety and protection, access to food and shelter, access to services such as primary health care and education. Within understanding refugee rights, concerns about the principles of non-discrimination and inclusiveness cannot be ignored. Jordan has implemented systems as a sign of its commitment to guarantee these basic conditions while refugees are in the country.


Alshoubaki and Harris[vii], have analysed that in the case of Jordan in order to understand the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, efforts to better understand the humanitarian, political, economic, sociocultural and environmental challenges to Jordanian society and the government must still be analyzed. We cannot ignore the fact that this crisis the cocreated competition between refugees and host communities over scarce resources and encouraged population pressure due to the influx of refugees on public goods and services. The refugees have also significantly increased the burden on the government. It is evident that the Jordanian government is burdened with the unexpected population pressure, political skepticism and mistrust and the exponential increase of demand on public goods and services.


Is this framework practical?

Whether these policy instruments are practical and sufficient to handle the complex nature associated with dealing with refugees is left for public scrutiny. However, the government of Jordan has continued to pledge its support and willingness to provide for refugees by even making attempts to bolster legal mechanisms within its present context. Exclusively relying on these short to medium term mechanisms and not providing a strong legal framework for Jordan to deal with the refugee situation can lead to the overburden of the state and no clear course of action on how to treat this growing crisis within Jordan borders.


On the other hand, one may see the Syrian refugee crisis as a developing and ongoing situation and the Jordan’s current position of non-commitment to these international treaties provides room for flexibility and adaptable non-commitment strategies for the future as Jordan navigates coping with the refugee system.


By Jordan’s interest and support of these instruments, despite not having a clear legal framework to justify its defining and operationalizing of a response to refugees, we can see that the country still has a critical interest in the Syrian refugee crisis and the issues of surrounding Palestinian occupation. It is assumed that its interest and motives are based on these main factors. Firstly, a security and peace point of view to ensure regional stability. The country sees the need to maintain peace and stability within its domestic borders and the neighboring countries influencing the region. Secondly, with Jordan being a predominantly Islamic state, the nation feels obligated to be its brother’s keeper in the Middle East, especially with the occupied Palestinian Territory situation. Thirdly, Jordan is aware of the geopolitical challenges occurring in Syria which negatively impact upon its economic, political and social stability. Furthermore, Jordan applauds the Assad regime’s victories in southwestern Syria as it provides Jordan with an opportunity to open the border and pursue reconstruction that could encourage refugees to return to the relevant territories.


Looking to the future

In the specific case of refugee rights, it is often a conflicting dilemma between host and home country and who truly bears responsibility for the safety and protection of people. In the case of Jordan, we have seen how the country has committed to the preservation of refugees and provides support, even though the country does not have strong legal frameworks to do so. With the provision of an existing MoU and voluntary commitments to regional action plans, Jordan has been able to some extent to provide a strategy for addressing refugee rights issues in its borders. The motives for Jordan’s support and attention to refugees is commendable. However, it can be concluded that greater efforts should be established to provide coherent legal, technical and social interventions through the cooperation of Jordanian citizens and the Government of Jordan, the Syrian Government, UNHCR and the intervening international organizations, the civil society and the international community to provide a holistic and practical solution to deal with the impact of mainly the Syrian refugee situation overwhelming the country of Jordan.


References [i] https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/ [ii] https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/ [iii] See Jordan Constitution Article 21 https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6b53310.pdf [iv] See the Syria Rapid Response Plan https://www.unhcr.org/syriarrp6/docs/syria-rrp6-strategic-overview.pdf [v] The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) sets out the framework within which the humanitarian community will respond to the largescale humanitarian and protection needs in Syria throughout 2020, on the basis of the prioritization undertaken across and within sectors. See for more information https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/2020_syria_humanitarian_response_plan.pdf [vi] See article UNHCR continues to support refugees in Jordan throughout 2019 https://www.unhcr.org/jo/12449-unhcr-continues-to-support-refugees-in-jordan-throughout-2019. [vii] See Alshoubaki, W., & Harris, M. (2018). “The impact of Syrian refugees on Jordan: A framework for analysis.” Journal of International Studies, 11(2), 154-179.

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