Jordan, a country of roughly 10 million people, is currently home to nearly 3 million refugees from various countries. Traditionally, the overwhelming majority of refugees in Jordan were from Palestine. However, the number of Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary in Jordan has drastically increased since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. UNHCR registered Syrian refugees now stands at more than 650 thousand people. When unregistered refugees are considered, that number is estimated to be over 1.3 million. Lately, more Syrian refugees from Jordan are returning to Syria; the UNHCR remarked on the “notable trend of spontaneous returns.” Since July, around 1,000 Syrian refugees return to Syria from Jordan every month; in part due to the de-escalation zone, established by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, across southwest Syria.
While conditions seem to be improving on the surface, institutional change has yet to make any impactful and sustainable improvement long term.
In general, the return of refugees to their native land is a good thing. Yet, conditions back in their country should be safe and secure. In the case of Syrian refugees, many conditions in Jordan are pushing Syrians back to their homeland before conditions are stable. Are Syrian refugees returning to Syria prematurely?
Some Syrian refugees are leaving their host country due to the difficult living conditions. For many, finding employment is still a significant challenge. Work permits for refugees in Jordan have been difficult to acquire, as workers have to be sponsored. Refugees turn to expensive “brokers” to procure permits. While companies are supposed to pay permit fees, instead fees are passed on to the refugee or taken out of salaries.
In 2016, Jordan took steps to increase refugees’ employment by signing the Jordan Compact, with the goal of providing 200,000 job opportunities for Syrian refugees in the “coming years.” Additionally, Jordan opened a 90-day “grace period” where employers could freely obtain permits for refugees. In the construction sector, Jordan has recently dropped work permit fees to 10 Jordanian dinars, with a mandatory insurance policy of 50 dinars, and is allowing refugees to apply for construction work permits without being sponsored by a company.
The influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has increased the housing demand, resulting in high rental costs. With additional living costs, increased work permit fees, and a fear of losing aid, obtaining even the cheapest work permit can present financial difficulties. The U.N. monthly cash assistance of 80-155 dinars is not enough and obtaining legal permits is avoided. Furthermore, the surplus of more than 1 million Syrian refugees as cheap labor makes job opportunities scarce. Despite attempts to improve work opportunities and small increases in employment, only 35,000 Syrian refugees hold valid work permits. As a result, unemployment in Jordan is high; near 18 percent. In early 2017, an estimated 93 percent of all refugees living outside of camps in Jordan were below the poverty line, and one in six Syrian refugee households in Jordan live in abject poverty. Refugees who work without permits face possible deportation.
Human Rights Watch reported in October that the Jordanian government deported in the first five months of 2017 around 400 registered Syrian refugees each month, often without providing much evidence of wrongdoing. This is not the only form of discrimination either. Accounts of Syrian refugee children being bullied are common, and many Syrian families fear sending their daughters to school, or even allowing them to go outside, due to sexual harassment. Children that do attend school often attend classes only for refugees after the Jordanian children have left. Poverty has resulted in child labor levels rising to over 79,000 children in 2017.
For refugees that are not legally registered in Jordan, the difficulties discussed above are amplified, making obtaining work, receiving aid, sending children to school and integrating into Jordanian society exceedingly difficult and risky, as deportation is always a threat. Unregistered refugees who would like to register risk being confined to refugee camps and having their family split up.
These difficulties examined above are perhaps the primary factors driving Syrian refugees out of Jordan, but in reality, the list of challenges for refugees goes beyond the ones already mentioned.
In addition to the conditions in Jordan driving out refugees, conditions in Syria are pulling refugees back into Syria. Daesh (ISIS) lost its last major stronghold of Albukamal in mid-November, and is decreasing as a security threat. Moreover, the southwest de-escalation zone has expanded and is moderately successful in decreasing violence. The increased frequency of negotiations, including the Geneva, Astana and Sochi talks, serve to promote the perception that the Syrian civil war is coming to a close.
The reasons driving refugees out of Jordan are completely valid. Yet the perceived conditions in Syria pulling refugees back to their homeland are worrisome. Barring a breakthrough, the Geneva talks have little chance of success, as most of the opposition insists that Assad cannot play a part in any transition period in Syria, while Assad’s delegation has set a precondition that Assad’s removal cannot be discussed. Furthermore, it is hard to see a legitimate solution resulting coming from the Sochi talks, which the opposition has rejected. Likely, fighting will continue unless the U.S. or another legitimate entity actively participates in helping create genuine negotiations and an equitable political solution.
While the southwest de-escalation zone may be working now, there are signs this is temporary. Assad has vowed to retake all of Syria and, as evidenced by the mid-September bombing of Idlib and the ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta, lacks respect for de-escalation zones unless they suit his agenda. Once Assad finishes retaking Damascus, he may very well turn his attention south. The regime and its allies have mobilized forces between Deraa, Qunaitra and Damascus as they prepare to retake the southwest de-escalation zone. Decisions by the U.S. administration to discontinue covert aid to opposition groups along the Syria-Jordan border, and to encourage opposition groups in southeast Syria to retreat into Jordan do not bode well for southern Syria.
Additionally, opposition areas may be met with a sharp decline in humanitarian aid come 2018 if the U.N. authorization for cross border aid delivery is not renewed this January. If this authorization is not renewed, then U.N. agencies and other U.N.-affiliated organizations working in government-held areas will not be able to circumvent the Syrian regime in delivering aid to certain opposition areas along Syria’s borders. Instead, organizations working in government-held areas will need to receive permission from the regime to deliver aid to these opposition territories – nearly impossible to do. In the south, this means that only organizations working exclusively in opposition territory will be able to use the Al-Ramtha border crossing to deliver aid to those in opposition-held areas of southern Syria.
While the conditions in southern Syria may seem too precarious for the return of refugees, the decision to leave will ultimately be made by each family. Still, the U.S. can help ease the plight of these Syrian refugees, regardless of whether they stay in Jordan or return to Syria. Through active participation in negotiations and by not pulling completely out of southern Syria, the U.S. can help establish a legitimate political solution and can perhaps make Assad think twice about a southern offensive.
Furthermore, assuming the U.N. cross-border aid authorization is not renewed, the U.S. can play an active part in persuading other countries and organizations to distribute aid exclusively to opposition areas, as the U.N. already aids much of the government-held areas. Lastly, the U.S. can put pressure on Jordan to continue improving conditions for Syrian refugees so they are not pressed into prematurely returning to the dangerous land they once fled.
Seth Hershberger is a former intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/the-precarious-situation-of-syrian-refugees-returning-to-syria.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 22, 2017, on page 7.