Jordan – the Refugees’ Safe Haven

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ARTUR MALANTOWICZ, Asian Programme

Syrian Refugees in Jordan
Source: Flickr.com, FreedomHouse

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a Middle Eastern country which is undergoing its Arab Spring reforms in a relatively peaceful way. Leaving the reforms’ effectiveness aside, another issue strongly related to the events taking place in the Middle East comes to the surface – the exodus of Syrian civilians. Jordan is among these countries which are the most actively involved in granting asylum for Syrian refugees whose number in Jordan was recently estimated at over 150,000. It is not the first time in history when Jordanian territory is becoming a safe haven for all those deprived of their belongings and homeland. In fact over half of the people currently living in Jordan either are themselves refugees and IDPs or originate from families who once fled to Jordan.

Jordan has experienced three waves of Palestinian exodus: in 1947-1948, in 1967 and in 1990-1991. The first wave was closely interrelated to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and atrocities which took place in Palestine at that time. The war has forced around 700,000-800,000 people to leave their homes and seek asylum in neighbouring countries; more than 70,000 fled directly to Jordan (at the time called Transjordan), further 300,000 escaped to West Bank which in 1950 officially became a part of the Hashemite Kingdom. Within a few years the population under King Abdullah’s rule more than doubled causing a serious strain for already scarce water resources and totally shifting social and economic image of the country. In 1954 all Palestinian refugees living in Jordan were granted full Jordanian citizenship rights and up to date Jordan is the only Arab country which has undertaken such move on a massive scale. The second exodus was caused by a June War of 1967 and Israeli annexation of the West Bank – in its effect more than 300,000 fled to Jordan; 1/3 of them were displaced for a second time in their lives.

Map 1. Palestinian Refugees registered by UNRWA in 2011
Author: A. Malantowicz

Finally, the third wave was related to the Gulf War of 1990/1991 during which the popular support for Saddam Hussein was commonly shown among both Palestinians and Jordanians. Even if officially Jordan remained neutral in the conflict, the oil monarchies of the Gulf (mostly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) in return expelled over 350,000 Palestinian workers, most of whom had Jordanian passports.

Nowadays Jordan has a population of circa 2 million Palestinian refugees who are registered under UNRWA. It is the largest number among all 5 areas of UNRWA’s operation (see Map 1) and in 2010 it constituted over 31% of the total population of the Kingdom.

Map 2. Palestinian Refugees’ camps in Jordan
Author: A. Malantowicz

Around 17,5% of registered refugees live permanently in 13 refugee camps spread within and around the capital city of Amman (see Map 2). Moreover, it is estimated that further several hundred thousand refugees were never registered by UNRWA hence the total number of Palestinian refugees living in Jordan may easily exceed 2,5 million people.

Another national group which has massively fled to Jordan are the Iraqis. Their presence in Jordan was already visible prior to the 2003 US-led war with an estimated number between 50,000 and 300,000 at that time. The war itself and its aftermath only worsened the situation and the several refugee waves that followed were closely related to the pace of political development in Iraq; they took place in 2003, 2004 and 2006. According to UNHCR, the number of Iraqi refugees has consequently increased to 750,000 by mid-2007, however the estimations vary from 500,000 up to a million. As some reports note, “such a number of newcomers, the rhythm of their arrival, and their social, economic and political profile all pose a variety of problems to the resource-poor Kingdom”. It is noteworthy, however, that most of the Iraqis who arrived to Jordan shortly after the war broke out represent a relatively wealthy group with high social capital; only afterwards they were followed by medium and low income groups. Furthermore, most of the Iraqi refugees are of Sunni background (over 65%), the rest are Shiites (ca. 16,5%) and Christians (12%).

Map 3. Displaced Iraqis
Source: BBC

Then it came again. Since May 2011 Jordan has been flooded with over 150,000 of Syrian refugees who are mostly concentrated in the northern part of the country, near the cities of Mafraq, Irbid, Ramtha, Jerash and Ajloun. Every day several hundred of newcomers are constantly crossing the Jordanian-Syrian border and Jordanian government, along with plethora of NGOs, is doing its best to accommodate the refugees needs. Simultaneously, thanks to family or tribal links many of the refugees find support on the Jordanian side on their own; many others have to count on the host community generosity. “These people live in the host community. We see this assistance option already happening since the crisis started last year and there are many Syrians staying in the host community. (…) The second option, in case people cannot stay with the host communities, or with families in rented apartments, we find an existing building where we create transit sites.”[1] That is where the displaced are offered aid by international organisations and NGOs. However, one should also note that together with rapidly increasing number of refugees, the tensions between Syrians and Jordanians arise, a proof of which came in mid-July.

So far only one refugee camp was established in Jordan and the UN expects to house around 10,000 people over there, albeit the officials are prepared to provide for 100,000 Syrians. Recently the Jordanian government issued a decision which gave the UN the green light to create further 20 camps in anticipation of the possible influx of up to one million refugees. Furthermore, as the press noted, “despite the added burden the growing refugee community is placing on Jordan’s already-stressed resources, Amman has vowed to maintain its open-border policy, granting refuge to all Syrians entering the country.

Immutably Jordan remains one of the most water-scarce country in the world and its population has quadrupled in last 40 years. Hence the question which needs to be asked is whether there are any limits for such open-border policy and who is going to bear its ultimate costs? The Jordanian tradition of safe haven for refugees being understandable, it seems that without serious involvement of the international community there will undoubtedly be more victims of the Syrian crisis, be it Syrian refugees in Jordan or Jordanian citizens. As Andrew Harper, head of the UNHCR in Jordan, remarked, “Jordan is full”.


Artur Malantowicz – Director of CII Asian Programme (since July 2012), works at the University of Warsaw (UW) where he is also a PhD student at the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science. Graduated from the Institute of International Relations UW (2011) and the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies UW (2011) and in addition studied at the University of Kent in Canterbury (United Kingdom, 2008-09) and the University of Jordan (Jordan, 2012-13). Trainee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland (2011) and the EU Delegation in Amman (2013). Research interests: International relations of the Middle East, regional security aspects in the Middle East (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict, peace process, the Palestinian refugees), foreign policy of the Arab states, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (history, political system, foreign policy and the democratization process), superpowers’ policy towards the Middle East.


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Artur Malantowicz

Middle East Expert w Centre for International Initiatives
PhD in Political Science (2016). Research interests: International relations of the Middle East, regional security aspects in the Middle East (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict, peace process, the Palestinian refugees), foreign policy of the Arab states, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (history, political system, foreign policy and the democratisation process). Contact: artur.malantowicz(at)centruminicjatyw.org.

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