The Wrenching Ethical Dilemma on Jordan's Border

Published July 5th, 2018 - 11:25 GMT
A Jordanian army soldier stands on a jeep behind barbed wire as displaced Syrians from Daraa fleeing shelling by pro-government forces  in a makeshift camp, near the town of Nasib, southern Syria, July 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)
A Jordanian army soldier stands on a jeep behind barbed wire as displaced Syrians from Daraa fleeing shelling by pro-government forces in a makeshift camp, near the town of Nasib, southern Syria, July 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)

By Eleanor Beevor

The humanitarian crisis at Jordan’s northern border is ratcheting up. The Syrian government offensive against the rebel-held Daraa province in south-western Syria has shattered the fragile peace, supposedly guaranteed by the de-escalation agreement brokered in 2017 between Russia, Jordan and the United States.

This corner of Syria is a political knife-edge. It borders both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and so risks further confrontation between Israel and Iranian-backed militias. It also threatens Jordan, a fragile island of stability in the turbulent Levantine region.

Jordan is already struggling to host the vast numbers of Syrian refugees who fled there in the first few years of the conflict. The small country currently hosts 660,000 refugees who are UN registered, although in fact the real number is likely to be far higher.

And now, thousands more Syrians are gathering at the border, desperate to be allowed to cross into Jordan, and into safety. As of Monday, 270,000 people in southern Syria have been displaced, according to UN figures. It is thought that over 75,000 Syrians are gathered at the border, hoping to enter.

Keeping border sealed

Jordanian soldier (Twitter)

But the Syrian-Jordanian border was closed in June 2016, sealed after a car bomb attack by ISIS, which killed seven Jordanian border guards.

And this week, Jumana Ghunaimat, the Jordanian Minister for Media Affairs told the Jordan Times: "We have received enough numbers of Syrian refugees; we already have a large number and we simply cannot receive more.” This insistence on keeping the border closed has been maintained throughout the week, despite a sharp online protest from Jordanians demanding that it be opened to safeguard peoples’ lives.

Jordanian soldier guards the border (AFP/Mohammad Abazeed)  

Jordan is scrambling to find other solutions. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi is going to Moscow this week to try and broker a ceasefire which would allow the refugees to return home. Meanwhile, the Jordanian Army is distributing aid on the other side of the border. But pressure from international organisations to reopen the border crossing is mounting on Amman.

Food distribution inside Syria near the Jordan border (AFP/Mohammad Abazeed)  

Jordan’s concerns for its economy and its security are justifiable. It has only just stabilized after a wave of anti-austerity protests, and a resulting change in Prime Minister. Jordanians are struggling to cope with the cost of living as it is, and major geopolitical decisions such as this one can affect the economy in unexpected ways.

His Majesty King Abdullah said in February that Jordan had been “let down” by the international community. And it is quite true that the cost of care for Syrian refugees has been far from equally shared. It is also unfair that Jordan has to bear costs for others’ violation of the ceasefire in Daraa.

Daraa in flames (AFP)

Moral responsibility  

Yet none of this negates an international moral responsibility towards refugees. Nor does it change the fact that those on the border currently have nowhere else safe to go.

Children hastily fleeing Daraa (AFP)

Aid agencies have pledged to offer the support that they can. Karl Schembri, a media representative for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Bawaba that though the challenges are significant, there is still capacity to protect more people in Jordan:

"Jordan has shown incredible generosity in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees over the last seven years. We know what kind of pressure this brings onto the country, but for tens of thousands fleeing the fighting in southern Syria, there is nowhere left to go. We appeal to the Jordanian government to give refuge to these people, and to the international community to support Jordan in this moment of crisis.

The NRC and other aid agencies in Jordan can immediately step up their services to refugees to accommodate new people who need protection. Azraq camp can be developed to take in around another 80,000 new refugees. We know how that for Jordan it's a struggle to cope with the refugee population but it's very touching to see Jordanians calling on their government on twitter to open the border. It is also a call to other governments around the world to open their borders to Syrian refugees instead of erecting more walls of inhumanity."

Medical response service

Unfortunately for now, the needs still outweigh the availability of resources. Poor sanitation presents serious risk, and is commonplace in rapidly erected refugee camps. Stef Deutekom, the Country Director for Jordan at the Danish Refugee Council, told Al Bawaba:

“DRC recognizes the dire need for basic assistance for the IDP’s currently located at the Syrian Jordanian Border in north Jordan. Jordanian Armed Forces, along with UN agencies and partners have already established medical response services on the border and are responding to immediate medical needs. The donations made by the Jordanian civil society are now being facilitated and distributed; however, the needs remain large and would include: Sanitation and hygiene kits, water and shelter among others. DRC continues to closely monitor the situation in Jordan and is ready to support and assist when necessary.”

Aid agencies can shoulder some of the burden, but the states demanding that Jordan open the border must also be ready to offer the necessary bilateral support.

Jordanian ministers are no doubt concerned about the longer term implications of accommodating more refugees. Jordan’s high unemployment rate, which hovers between 18.4% and 18.5% of the population, means that the government is understandably concerned about competition from Syrians for jobs. And given the unpredictability of the situation on the ground in Syria, there can be no guarantee that refugees will be able to return home in the near future.

Jordan’s border with Syria remains firmly shut (AFP)

However, protectionist labour laws that prevent refugees in Jordan from working altogether create their own host of problems. They force refugees into precarious work, increase dependence on aid, and stunt the development of younger generations. Instead, it is necessary to find creative solutions that could help to mitigate refugee unemployment, without taking jobs from Jordanians. Lorraine Charles, a researcher and consultant on refugee issues affiliated with the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, told Al Bawaba:

“Refugees need the opportunity to be self-reliant. When refugees (and this also applies to the host community as well) work informally, they are vulnerable to exploitation, and this places them in precarious situations.  I think there are several ways that Jordan can move toward greater inclusion of Syrians into the labor market (and this also applies to the host community), thereby providing access to dignified livelihoods. For instance, remote work needs to be considered as a viable option for employment for refugees and the host community. Appropriate legal frameworks need to be achieved so that refugees are able to work remotely and this type of work is formal and protected by labour laws.”

Formalising such opportunities in labour laws is not only important for protecting refugees. It could represent a significant source of income for Jordan. If qualified Syrians could work remotely for international companies, but within formalized Jordanian labour systems, Jordan would stand to gain revenue, potentially worth millions of dollars.

Naturally there will be significant obstacles to overcome in all these scenarios. Opening the border to those in need is a difficult task.

The international community will have to convince Jordan that it will be given the support it needs this time. But there is still capacity with which to help protect people, and creative ways in which to turn a difficult situation to Jordan’s advantage. There are a great many uncertainties, but one certainty is that leaving a disempowered and endangered refugee population on Jordan’s doorstep benefits no one.

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