From Churchill's ‘Buffer Zone’ to a Safe Haven for Refugees
With a stroke of a pen one Sunday night at the Cairo Conference in 1921, Churchill without knowing it created what was to become one of the most important places for refugees in the Middle East. Caught in the middle of constant tensions, rising numbers of extremist groups and endless armed conflicts, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan became a safe haven for refugees in the region. In the north, Jordan opened its borders to refugees fleeing from the ongoing civil war in Syria. In the west, several waves of Palestinian refugees have crossed the border to Jordan with hopes of escaping the perpetual struggle between Israel and Palestine. And in the east, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continues to push more refugees out of their homes and into Jordan.
But the pressure now comes not only from Jordan's immediate neighbours but also from more distant countries such as Yemen and Libya. Since its independence in 1946, Jordan has shown enormous hospitality towards those in need. But can the Kingdom continue to do so without giving in to the socio-economic and security challenges of the continuous influx of refugees?
The Making of Jordanians with Palestinian Origin
The first wave of Palestinian refugees set its feet on the territory of Jordan during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Jordan became the host of the largest proportion of Palestinian refugees, taking in approximately 370 000 refugees, 50% of the total fleeing population. Absorbing such a large number of refugees shortly after gaining independence led to dramatic demographic changes. From 1948 to 1950 Jordan became a predominantly Palestinian state. By 1949, Jordan's population amounted to 1.2 million, with ⅔ being of Palestinian origin.
Unlike other Arab states such as Lebanon or Syria, Jordan granted full citizenship to indigenous West Bankers and Palestinian refugees, giving the Palestinians greater opportunity to integrate and create a home on Jordanian territory. The 1954 Nationality Law laid down the basis for granting citizenship to refugees. Under this law anyone, who was not of Jewish origin and possessed Palestinian nationality before 1948 was granted citizenship under the condition that they resided on the territory of Jordan on the date of implementation of this law. Though willing to integrate the newly come refugee population, tensions heightened with Israel's annexation of the West Bank in 1967. At that time 400 000 additional Palestinians were pushed into Jordan's East Bank. As of 2010, the Jordanian population of 9 million included 1.9 million of those who were either Palestinian refugees or their descendants, making Jordan a country with the highest ratio of refugees to the indigenous population.
Refugee Crisis during Syria's Civil War
Ever since the beginning of Syria's civil war in 2011, Jordan has become a destination country for Syrian refugees. Jordan welcomed the second largest number of Syrian refugees in the world after Lebanon and is now home to some 1.4 million Syrians. Though the strains on Jordan's economy posed by the continuous influx of refugees may be worrying, the communities remain in relative harmony with each other. Looking at Jordan's immediate neighbours, this certainly brings a breath of fresh air into an otherwise tension-filled environment.
In 2021, Jordan achieved major progress in integrating Syrian refugees into its labour market. Though Syrian refugees have been allowed to work in certain sectors of the Jordanian economy since 2016, in 2021 Jordan issued a record number of work permits to Syrian refugees. The total number of issued permits that year stood at 62 000, putting Jordan at the forefront of efforts to provide refugees with access to work. The situation is improving further as progress has been made in allowing Syrian refugees to work in sectors other than agriculture, construction and manufacturing. Syrian refugees now have access to all sectors that are open to non-Jordanian citizens.
The history of Arab hospitality and the traditions that come with it can help better understand Jordan's willingness to welcome refugees and provide them with protection. Historically, Arab nations have been following the principles of the so-called 'intervention' (dikhalah) or 'succour' (najda), stipulating the social and religious duty to welcome and protect refugees. In today's language, these practices can be compared to the Western notion of granting asylum. Even before the arrival of Islam in the Middle East, local communities had been actively engaged in granting safe haven to persecuted people (manh eljewar). With the arrival of Islam, the Islamic model adopted these practices under the notion that all humans, regardless of their religion, are equal. According to these traditions today, Muslims who are in a need of asylum are given 'shelter' (iwaa), with the right to protection becoming an obligation for the authorities, while making expulsion of the asylum-seeker from the territory prohibited.
Even though the influx of refugees puts enormous pressure on Jordan's already scarce resources, King Abdullah has repeatedly reiterated that welcoming refugees is the right thing to do, as they have nowhere else to go and are being persecuted in their own countries. Jordan's approach to the series of refugee crises that have plagued the Middle East hints that the Arab tradition of hospitality still exists and the notion of being the gracious neighbour (hosn eljewar) remains part of Arab culture.
Jordan has achieved incredible milestones in its openness to welcome the continued influx of refugee populations. This has, however, not come without a cost. A large percentage of the Jordanian refugee population lives under the poverty line and struggles to find decent employment. Though the communities live in relative harmony with each other, the strain on Jordan's already scarce resources continues to grow.
Fortunately, however, all is not lost. The influx of refugees has benefited Jordanian economic development, with Jordan receiving humanitarian and development support from the international community and financial contributions in the form of Palestinian remittances. This has contributed to the development of Jordan's public and private sectors, but also continues to enable the effort to further accommodate refugee populations. The international community will, however, need to continue working hand in hand with Jordan to alleviate the strain of the continued influx of large numbers of refugees and protect Jordan’s economy and resources.
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