The Guests

Why Jordan doesn’t have a refugee problem.

By Carleen Liu


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e pass through three security checkpoints to enter Za’atari, the Syrian refugee camp ten kilometers east of Marfraq, Jordan. At each checkpoint, the walls are white and we wait until gates open reluctantly for our bus. There is one long road that stretches through the entire camp, and none of us can see the end of it.

Za’atari opened in 2012, as a “temporary camp.” But wars always go on longer than predicted, and its consequences are rarely temporary. People poured in until the camp became a sprawling city — the fifth largest in Jordan. “We opened a marketplace within a few days,” a man voted leader of his block laughs. “We work hard.” He hands us pastries his wife made. They are warm and wrapped in paper. We nibble on them as we walk along dusty desert road. The large population of 79,900, the informal economy, efforts at establishing a water and sewage system, plans of paved roads, and so on, are hinting at one thing that nobody wants to confront – the idea of permanence.

A young woman welcomes us into her home. She wakes her toddler to tell him to greet us. He groggily says a few words and goes back to sleep. We crowd around in the small room and sit on mats.  A classmate introduces our group. We are students attending universities in the United States, and we are studying abroad this semester in Nepal, Jordan, and Chile to learn about human rights. I shift my weight uncomfortably when hearing our introduction. We get to go all over the world, and this family can’t even go home.

Not long after tea is served, our Jordanian program coordinator asks the woman what happened to her leg. My eyes widen, but the woman answers calmly. She has cancer and had to get her leg amputated. Treatment is not always available here, she says. Her husband is looking for work. She looks down and strokes her son’s hair. She tells us she is still hopeful, and smiles to prove it.

During the midst of crises in its neighboring countries, Jordan has remained stable. In a September 2014 article of The Jordan Times, Prince Hassan bin Talal said, “Jordan will always be a safe haven for displaced people and those who suffer injustice.” Jordan currently has a population of approximately 6.5 million Jordanians and 2.5 million registered refugees, mainly from Palestine, Iraq, and most recently, Syria. This influx of people, however, undoubtedly has significant social and economic effects on Jordan. As a result, the language host countries use to talk about refugees is not always welcoming.

Different refugee groups are perceived differently according to their histories and current situations. Palestinian refugees have a longer history in Jordan because most Palestinians came to Jordan as refugees between 1948 and 1967. Today, many Palestinians and their descendants in Jordan are naturalized citizens. In fact, Jordanians don’t usually distinguish “Jordanian-Jordanians” from “Jordanian-Palestinians.”

However, when Iraqi refugees began coming to Jordan between 1991 and 2003, Jordanian officials framed it as a security and economic issue rather than a humanitarian one, for fear that the crisis narrative would lead to Iraqis becoming like the millions of Palestinians who have become integrated into the Jordanian population. This explains why the Jordanian government chooses to use the word “guests,” implying a return to their home country rather than “refugees” to describe the Iraqis.

The idea of refugees being economic burdens often accompanies the notions that they are political and social threats. A Jordan University student explains that he heard that many Iraqis coming into Jordan are wealthy and middle-class — a common overgeneralization. Who he feels causes the most strain on Jordan’s economy are the Syrian refugees who began coming in 2011. Since many refugees are willing to work for a lower wage, they are accused of taking jobs away from Jordanians. However, according to Brookings Institute, Syrians are not necessarily displacing Jordanians but are competing with over 500,000 immigrants, most from other Arab countries, who work in low-wage jobs. Many immigrants and refugees do not hold work permits and operate under a system of informal employment.

Some perceive refugees not only as  political, social, and economic burdens, but also as security threats. Because borders are open to refugees, some Jordanians fear extremists will cross the border and bring conflict into Jordan. The media also portrays refugees as being prone to criminal activity. Some point to the rise in crime rate that has occurred along with refugees entering the country as evidence. However, crime increases as population increases. When refugees commit crimes, we must consider the potential factors that have driven them to do so, because it can be driven by basic needs not being met.

“We aren’t wanted here,” an Iraqi refugee explains, “But we can’t go back to Iraq. That would mean death. We can’t stay here. We can’t [legally] work here. We are here without resources.” He is an urban refugee, living outside of camps and with little to no assistance. He pulls out 80 Jordanian Dinar from his wallet (about US $120), gestures to the rest of his family in their cramped apartment and says, “This is all I have. What about my children? What do I do?”

“The inability for most to put food on their tables is precipitating moves back to Syria by vulnerable families,” says Amanda Lane, director of Collateral Repair Project, a nonprofit that provides services to refugees in Amman. “The food aid crisis is a trigger for families to feel they have no future in Jordan and to make the decision to go back or to Europe.” As the European Union is facing a large influx of refugees, fears of political, social, and economic liability that rose in Jordan have also been voiced by some EU leaders. For example, Hungary’s Prime Minister remarked that refugees from the Middle East would be a threat to Europe’s Christian identity.

The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees outlines the responsibilities of host nations and rights of refugees, including access to courts, primary education, work, and the provision for documentation. However, these basic human rights are not always fulfilled because of the problematization of refugees. It is important to remember that the responsibility of such strain on the host country does not lie with the refugees who have no choice but to leave their home country in order to survive. The real problems are the crises and atrocities that forced them to leave in the first place.

The problematization of human beings is dangerous, especially as it infiltrates conversations regarding refugee rights and prevents those rights from being actualized. While the narrative of pan-Arab brotherhood has continually been raised as a reason for welcoming refugees in Jordan, a UNHCR representative says he needs to “make it clear [to the refugees] that it is not their right to be in the community,” but they are only able to be in Jordan because the government allows them to be.  
Toward the end of our time in Amman, we visit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a representative talks to us about healthcare. She lists all the common services provided, except for cancer and other more expensive treatments, given their limited funds. She’s right — recent reports show a gap of US$3.47 billion in aid. Sitting in a state-of-the-art room donated by the Swiss, I ask her if she’s been to Za’atari. A few times. She finishes her presentation and the projector shuts off.  Another UNHCR representative talks about his experience working with refugees, and keeps repeating, “Of course, they are human.” Yet in the midst of talk about the refugee “problem” Jordan is facing, it seems we tend to forget.


Carleen Liu is a senior Cognitive Science major in Berkeley College. Contact her at