“Dreaming of Home: Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?” by Matthew R. Stevens

Dreaming of Home : Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?
by Matthew R. Stevens – @Matt_R_Stevens
for Syria Comment, Sept 16, 2014

“What do I think will happen?” He sighs. “I think that it is over. I think Bashar will win.”

I am cross-legged in the sitting room of a Syrian family, hot tea half-forgotten in my hand. I give the man a long, searching stare. He nods in confirmation. Asad will win. Asad already has won.

This point of view has become familiar through the first three months of research on post-conflict Syrian social structures in Irbid. The second largest city in Jordan, Irbid rests about 20km from the Dar’a border crossing. Irbid Governate held a population of approximately one million before the conflict began in Syria; now, it is home to an additional 160,000 Syrians.

Opportunistic sampling of Syrians living in Irbid has revealed greater diversity in political leanings than initially expected. Few report being staunch supporters of either Asad or the FSA. Irrespective of previous political hopes for Syria, many seem to be playing a pragmatic game of reconciliation—re-obscuring political affiliations in a preparation for rehabilitation with the regime.

‘Message to the world: “My Syria… when will we return?” In Syria, war prevented teachers from reaching a school in this young woman’s neighborhood. She lived closer to the school and volunteered to teach the students “so they wouldn’t forget.”‘

Similar to reporting on the emerging scenario in the north, displaced Syrians living in Irbid describe the FSA in as scattered, under-resourced, devoid of unity—and increasingly, bit players in a drama between two unthinkable antagonists, Asad and “Da’esh,” the local slang for the Islamic State. Other Islamist groups are not generally viewed as serious contenders; they will consolidate with IS or disappear. Pockets of resistance in Dar’a notwithstanding, few here expect the FSA will ever regain the strength to pose a serious challenge Asad in the south. The Syrians I speak to further insist the Islamic State will never be allowed victory: ironically and at last, IS is an issue the international community will be forced to rally around—if not exactly in support of Asad, then to his government’s mutual benefit.

So, Asad has won. It is a simple calculus.

Would Syrians living in exile return to a southern Syria stabilized by the Asad regime? This question is difficult to answer. The challenges of sampling an urban refugee population are well-documented. These challenges demand a great deal of speculation when attempting to predict the desires or behaviours of a non-homogeneous group of people who are distributed through geographical space by a multitude of factors such as economic class, social affiliations (such as regional, political or religious identification), and family relations. Realistically, a researcher must rely on chance encounters and word of mouth to find willing respondents, and has no way of knowing whether the communal networks accessed are representative. The fact that Syrians have spent their pre-conflict lifetimes carefully managing their relations with Asad’s obtrusive secret service only increase the uncertainty of predictions.

Accepting this caveat, and recognizing these findings are further limited to the specific geographical location of urban Irbid, I suspect a significant number of urban Syrian refugees would return to a south ruled by the Asad regime.            Cautious and pragmatic political negotiation is an old standard of pre-conflict Syrian society, which most have spent their lives mastering. If Asad is to be the inevitable victor, return will be contingent on refugees’ abilities to convince the government of their loyalty.

Many here go so far as to cite grievances with the FSA. “Asad is not good, the FSA is not good, so what are we to do?” is a common refrain. Especially in central Irbid, many displaced families come from middle class backgrounds—those who had the most to lose to less scrupulous brigades willing to treat local civilians as a resource. Frustration with a lack of oversight or unity in the FSA is common, and some seem to suspect the upper levels of the resistance movement as self-interested and corrupt.

Conversely, urban Syrian households that report ongoing FSA support tend to have ties to the resistance movement, which would be difficult to obscure. This includes a history of service with resistance brigades (especially those who have been visibly injured), family members who are publicly affiliated with the FSA, and SAA army defectors or individuals who fled SAA drafts. Even these families maintain that Asad will likely re-consolidate control of Syria, and do not express hope of ever returning to their homes. They expect to remain in permanent exile.

Notably, the Syrian families I have spoken with in Irbid have not reported any support for Da’esh or other Islamist groups. Whether this represents a sample bias or reporting bias is difficult to ascertain, but research suggests that victory by the Islamic State would result in lifelong displacement for a large number of Syrians in Irbid—much more so than in the case of an Asad victory.

Overall, the reported desire by Syrians in Irbid is to return home, and to return as quickly as possible. Tolerance of the difficult life of a refugee is waning as war drags on and host country patience wears thin, especially in light of new Government of Jordan laws which more strictly regulate Syrians’ lives outside the camps. There is little enthusiasm for a reinvigorated FSA making a new bid for power: Syrians canvassed are simply not in favour of another long phase of civil war fueled by further foreign influence. Political dreams are seen as waning in importance in the face of overwhelming desire to cut losses and restart lives—people yearn for careers, home ownership, marriage, children, all of which are near impossible for displaced Syrians in the current political climate in Jordan. Many are actively considering return in the short term, despite the risks. This is especially so for those who originated from areas such as Suwayda, which have already been reclaimed by SAA forces. Others talk of restarting lives in Damascus, though they cite the dangers of a life riddled with government checkpoints while carrying identification which associates them with the rebellious province of Dar’a.

While these findings can not be assumed reflect the desires of all Syrians in Jordan—notably they do not include residents of Zaatari, who are reported to be more staunch FSA supporters—I suspect that a concrete offer of amnesty from Asad, backed up by safe and successful reintegration of those who first repatriate, could spark large numbers of urban-based Syrians to return. Exhausted by the refugee experience, repatriated Syrians may constitute a major influence on the conflict sooner rather than later.

Matthew is an MA Candidate in Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens.

“ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks,” By Balint Szlanko

ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks
By Balint Szlanko – @balintszlanko
For Syria Comment, Sept 13, 2014

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan—The extremist group known variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply Islamic State, has maneuvered itself into a difficult situation over the last couple of months. Fanatical groups like this are prone to violent overreach and they often end up with everybody else ganging up on them. ISIS is no different and now it will pay the price. It may also be far weaker than it looks, for it’s only really been able to shine against much weaker enemies.

ISIS’ big gains in Iraq (they took Mosul in early June and the Sinjar region in early August) have led to a situation where most of the region’s players have allied themselves against it, including archenemies like Iran and the U.S.—and that was before the Obama administration started building a broad international coalition against them. The Iraqis have already got rid of their incompetent prime minister, Nour al Maliki, whose sectarian policies are largely responsible for driving many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State. The new Iraqi government seems to have a broader political and sectarian basis, although whether that will have any effect on the ground remains to be seen. As it has been pointed out elsewhere, Iraqi governments usually have a broad confessional basis, the problem is that this doesn’t really get reflected in policy outputs.

More important is that the military cooperation between the Iraqis, the U.S. and the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government is already delivering results. The Kurds have got a much-needed morale boost from the American airstrikes against ISIS and the Western military aid that is already being flown into Kurdistan (so far small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weapons have arrived, ministry of peshmerga officials told me in Erbil, but heavy weapons have been promised as well). They pushed back ISIS forces around the Mosul Dam Lake, west of Erbil, and in the south of the KRG around Jalawla, though Jalawla itself remains under ISIS control.

The Iraqi Army, helped by Shiite militias, has also gained some ground (though it may be more accurate to say that Shiite militias, helped by the Iraqi Army, have gained ground, which is bound to cause big problems later). Even in Syria we are seeing some results by anti-ISIS forces: the militants have been stopped north of Aleppo by a coalition of moderate rebels who have even retaken some of the villages they lost in August. In the east, the Kurdish militia, the YPG, drove them all the way down to the south of Hasaka city. To be sure, these frontlines all have their own dynamic and developments there should be analysed more or less independently. But the fact remains that ISIS is now facing determined adversaries on several very long frontlines both in Iraq and Syria, clearly a big problem for any state or insurgent group. It will soon face more U.S. airstrikes too.

The bottom line is that while ISIS looks strong, it really isn’t as strong as its fearsome reputation suggests. It is an organised, highly motivated guerrilla group with lots of experienced fighters. It builds on the weaknesses of its enemies by sending its highly mobile, quick-moving forces to places where they are least expected, uses suicide bombers as just another battlefield tool, and it magnifies the fear created by its shocking brutality with effective publicity. And now it has also got a significant amount of heavy weapons and armour, captured from the Iraqis, plus an influx of men, some from disenchanted Syrian rebel groups, some from Sunni tribes and other Iraqi insurgent group. It also has a lot of money, some from robbery, some from kidnappings and some from protection rackets.

And yet ISIS have only really been successful in areas where it faced no serious resistance: in the political and military vacuum of the Sunni heartland, in eastern Syria and central and western Iraq. Its significant battlefield successes have really only been against disorganized and undermotivated enemies, such as the Iraqi Army or Syria’s disparate rebels, or isolated outposts of the Syrian Army, under siege for a very long time. Whenever it had to confront a determined and organised adversary, such as the Kurdish YPG in northeastern Syria, it has always been bested. Even Syria’s ragtag rebels managed to kick it out of northwestern Syria early this year, though that was before its big Iraqi victories and associated growth in strength. The same thing is likely to happen now, if only because launching surprise attacks against largely undefended cities is very different from defending the large geographic area it now controls against coordinated attacks (and the U.S. Air Force).

This means that ISIS can be contained, its abilities degraded, perhaps quite severely. It doesn’t mean it can be destroyed, not with these tools alone. For that, the dysfunctional policies of the Sunni heartland would have to be addressed, its institutions strengthened, so that their own moderate parties can contain the impulses that have led to ISIS’ emergence, without the need for American airstrikes and Kurdish or Shiite militias. Clearly this is the real challenge and there is no obvious solution in sight. ISIS’ brutality may or may not lead to local resistance—so far those who have tried paid dearly. The Sunni tribes, the heartland’s only visible institutions, are too weak, as are Syria’s moderate rebels. The Syrian and Iraqi states, or what has remained of them, are discredited. It is probably impossible to put these countries back together again. But that doesn’t mean ISIS cannot be contained in a manageable geographic area. My bet is that it’s likely to stick around for a while but in a much weakened form.

Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered Syria since early 2012 and has recently completed two trips to the Kurdish areas

Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part IV)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented part/predominantly foreign fighter battalions in Syria here, here and here. Below are a couple more groups as part of this series.

Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham

Logo of Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, with motto reading: “We are victorious or we die.” The group’s other main slogan is: “The law of God rules us,” similar to the mentality of other foreign fighter battalions like the Imam Bukhari Battalion of Uzbek fighters.

Al-Mi’ad Media, the media wing of Jaysh Muhammad.

Jaysh Muhammad is a jihadi faction led by one Abu Obeida al-Muhajir (of Egyptian nationality). The group primarily operates in Aleppo province but has extended operations to other governorates: for example, the group participated in October 2013 with the Green Battalion and the Islamic State (IS), among other “Islamic battalions,” in an offensive on the Sakhna region in Homs province.

In Aleppo province, Jaysh Muhammad worked and co-existed with the Islamic State in some areas prior to and somewhat after the start of wider infighting between IS and other rebels. For instance, in July 2013, a joint operations room as part of “The Battle of True Dawn” was formed in an attempt to capture the two Shi’a localities of Nubl and Zahara’ in Aleppo province, including Jaysh Muhammad, IS, Ahrar al-Sham and a local north Aleppo battalion. As for the aftermath of the beginning of infighting in January 2014, the most notable instance of Jaysh Muhammad-IS cooperation came in the “And Don’t Separate” initiative- an alliance of jihadi factions including Jabhat al-Nusra and independent groups like the Green Battalion- to capture Kweiris military airbase to the east of Aleppo city. It quickly fell apart though as all battalions except IS withdrew.

The most interesting case of IS-Jaysh Muhammad relations was the locality of Azaz, which was seized by IS in autumn 2013 from the FSA-banner brigade Northern Storm. To recap briefly the story of what went on there, IS entered the town of Azaz in the summer of 2013- to the chagrin of some locals- and the group moved into what was a services office to engage in da’wah and social outreach, without initially having a military presence. It was only when IS decided to seize on a pretext to take over the town that fighters and tanks were called in from outside.

That said, in a recent interview with me, a spokesman for Northern Storm- which has since returned to become the sole ruling authority in Azaz following IS’ withdrawal earlier this year and has formally joined the Islamic Front- affirmed that while Northern Storm and IS had worked together in the fall of Mannagh airbase in summer 2013, IS had been stockpiling weapons seized from the base in what was then its da’wah office. In any event, when fighting initially broke out in Azaz in September 2013, a ceasefire agreement was mediated by Liwa al-Tawhid and required both Liwa al-Tawhid and Jaysh Muhammad to implement the agreement.

It turns out that while Liwa al-Tawhid was nowhere to be seen in the face of IS’ subsequent breaking of the ceasefire agreement to expel Northern Storm entirely from Azaz, Jaysh Muhammad had remained in Azaz, having a base there and essentially standing by as IS took over the town. Whereas Liwa al-Tawhid’s inaction at the time appears to have been the result of an informal condemnation of Northern Storm by Aleppo’s Shari’a Committee, Jaysh Muhammad more likely did nothing out of jihadi ideological sympathy for IS.

What happened in the run-up to IS’ strategic abandonment of Azaz at the end of February- considering that the area was cut off from the rest of IS’ contiguous territory in east Aleppo province- is also of interest. If we are to believe the testimony of foreign fighter and Twitter personality “Abu Hamza al-Erhabi”- who at the time claimed affiliation with Jaysh Muhammad- then Jaysh Muhammad planned in advance to abandon Azaz if IS left. According to Northern Storm’s spokesman in an interview with me, Northern Storm imposed an ultimatum on Jaysh Muhammad to leave Azaz, join the fight against IS, or face war.

Despite past events in Azaz and elsewhere suggesting affinity with IS, Jaysh Muhammad actually seems to have been closer to Jabhat al-Nusra all along, even as all three groups of course ultimately have the same goal of a global Caliphate. Indeed, Abu Hamza al-Erhabi had described his group as “sort of” Jabhat al-Nusra. However, in July this year, Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo put out a statement disavowing organizational relations with Jaysh Muhammad:

“Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo announces that the Jaysh Muhammad battalion under the leadership of the brother Sheikh Abu Obeida the Egyptian- may God protect him- has no organizational connection with Jabhat al-Nusra, for the behavior of the battalion is not considered appropriate in Jabhat al-Nusra’s eyes with the maintenance of a relation of brothers, affection and sincerity between us.”

Jaysh Muhammad then issued a response affirming that it never had allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place and attempting a further clarification:

“In response to the prevailing view regarding the statement of the Jabhat al-Nusra brothers in Aleppo- may God give them strength- and the clarification of the relationship between Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, we clarify the confusion that has arisen: Jaysh Muhammad did not pledge allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra from the beginning and Jabhat al-Nusra has no pledge of allegiance on the neck of Jaysh Muhammad for it to be understood that Jaysh Muhammad was expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra.

But the statement was published on account of what is prevalent among the people: that Jaysh Muhammad is under allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra on the basis of coordination and cooperation between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra: but this is mistaken, for in reality there is joint cooperation and organization between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra; moreover, this has not ceased their continuing to be our brothers and beloved ones, and there continues to be a relationship of being brothers in God, affection and sincerity.”

The current status of the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh Muhammad is unclear, but arguably as part of the wider trend of non-IS jihadi groups beginning to implement their own state/proto-state legislation projects as territory in Syria is increasingly gobbled up by the regime and IS,[i] Jaysh Muhammad announced in July its intentions of implementing Shari’a and hudud regulations in their entirety in all captured areas. At the moment nothing suggests that Jaysh Muhammad has joined some of the other jihadi groups operating in Aleppo province that formed the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition.

Update: It has now emerged that despite the Northern Storm ultimatum, Jaysh Muhammad has retained a base in the wider Azaz area (though not participating in any way in governance of the town of Azaz), as the Islamic Front has just released a statement giving Jaysh Muhammad three days to evacuate the Azaz area in light of the fighting against IS. 

Jund al-Aqsa

Flag of Jund al-Aqsa

Jund al-Aqsa media committee.

Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) is a foreign fighter battalion of a variety of nationalities (including some of South Asian origin)- as well as comprising a native Syrian contingent- primarily operating in Idlib and Hama governorates. The group was in January of this year confronted by rebels on the grounds of being an ally of IS, but with IS’ withdrawal from Idlib and Hama provinces, any tensions between Jund al-Aqsa and other rebels have since calmed down, and the group has notably taken part in joint offensives with Ahrar al-Sham of the Islamic Front (e.g. capturing the village of Ma’an in Hama province in February, which culminated in a massacre of local Alawites). More recently, Jund al-Aqsa has been participating with the Islamic Front in an operation to capture Hama military airport: Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra, announced last month and ongoing. Indeed, it is notable that even as other jihadi groups have set about working on their own administrative initiatives, it is striking that Jund al-Aqsa still remains focused on advertising military operations.

Jund al-Aqsa claiming to fire heavy weaponry at regime aircraft as part of the offensive on Hama military airport.

Jund al-Aqsa claiming to target regime positions around Hama military airport as part of the same offensive.

Jabhat al-Nusra has also continued to work with Jund al-Aqsa, pointing to Jund al-Aqsa’s closer affinity at the present time to Jabhat al-Nusra than IS, whatever the prior relations were with the latter. In this photo released in June, Jabhat al-Nusra claims coordination with Jund al-Aqsa in targeting a hotel building in Idlib city that members of Hezbollah were supposedly using as a base.

Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Qatari, the amir of Jund al-Aqsa killed in fighting with rebels in January. Of Palestinian origin, he was apparently a veteran of the jihad in Iraq for some time before going to Qatar and continuing to support the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.

Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Masri: an Egyptian fighter for Jund al-Aqsa whose death was announced on 26 July this year.

Muhannad al-Ansari, from Saraqeb (Idlib province), killed in the Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra. Death announced on 30 July.




[i] Though Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to backtrack in its public rhetoric on the leaked ‘emirate’ announcement by leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, its recent record on the ground of seizing territory from one-time allies of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib in particular and the announcement of economic and societal regulations therein undermine its attempts at ‘clarification.’

Undoubtedly too the behavior by Jabhat al-Nusra is partly explained as the result of a perception that some rebels are receiving Western arms on the condition of not cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra and therefore constitute a threat in the long-run as territory available for control- particularly crucial border areas- becomes increasingly scarce.

The Unintended Consequences of Closing and Restricting Jordan-Syria Border Crossings—by Justin Schon

Justinby Justin Schon

“In the interest of our national security, we are prepared to close the border if — God forbid — anarchy breaks out in Syria or we see an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and Government Spokesperson Samih Maaytah said in January 2013. This statement may not seem noteworthy for one of Syria’s neighbors, but it did signal increasing concern from the Jordanian government about the growing influx of Syrian refugees. These security fears have only grown over time.

In response to civil conflict in a neighboring state, it is not uncommon for states to close their borders. Border closures are commonly seen as one method to reduce the likelihood of conflict spreading from neighboring countries. In theory, border closures should prevent weapons, supplies, armed groups, and civilians from flowing through the country. For example, Kenya has attempted to close its border with Somalia. However, just as Kenya has proven unable to stem the flows of weapons, Al Shabaab fighters, and Somali refugees, Jordan’s attempts to restrict movement across its border with Syria have achieved little success. Arguably, they have even made Jordan less safe.

Ultimately, it is not possible to completely control a border. Over 600,000 Syrians have entered Jordan since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2011, with several hundred thousand of them having arrived since Jordan began to seriously restrict entry. This seems to have begun around March 2013, when Jordan was accused of closing the crossing at Nassib. Jordan finally admitted in June 2013 that it had closed several illegal crossing points and limited the entry of refugees through other border crossings.

These restrictions did not stop the flow of refugees into Jordan. Even by early 2012, it had already become more difficult for Syrians to enter Jordan. This simply prompted many Syrians to cross illegally into Jordan. These crossings occurred along at least 45 illegal crossing points. With a 231 mile border, much of it located in harsh desert, the Jordan-Syria border is very difficult to secure.

Yet, by May 2013, the Jordanian government had managed to shut down most of these crossings. Now, the best hope for Syrians to cross into Jordan lies in travelling to the East, where Syrians must endure the harsh desert, government checkpoints, bombings, pro-government militias, and Bedouins who often demand bribes to allow fleeing civilians to pass. As one refugee told me, “From Deraa, it can take about 15 days to travel to the desert border crossing near Ruwayshid [city in eastern Jordan]. When people arrive there, they are almost always out of food and water. Many need medical care. But then they have to wait for Jordan to let them enter. This can take one week, one month, or more.”

These controls have prevented many Syrians from being able to leave Syria at all. Those unfortunate enough to be in this position are often forced to live in large displaced persons camps around Nassib, Tel Shihab, and other border towns. This problem is aggravated by the inability of many Syrians living north of Deraa to find out about the border restrictions. Thus, many Syrians go to Deraa, only to learn that they cannot cross into Jordan from there. Instead, they have to go back north to Damascus, then to Sweidah, and then east to the desert border crossing from which they can reach Ruwayshid in Jordan. People without the money to pay for this trip are often left with no options other than staying in the displaced persons camps.

These camps host thousands of people, and sadly have not been safe from bombing by the Syrian government, including barrel bombs. As fighting moves closer to the border, there is an increased likelihood for violence to cross into Jordan. On Monday, August 11, a rocket fired from Syria reportedly landed a few hundred meters from Zaatari. Jordanians have also been hit by stray bullets from fighting along the border. Bold attempts to cross have even forced the Jordanian military to take lethal action, such as when it destroyed trucks with Syrian rebels attempting to enter Jordan in April 2014.

This situation leads to the Jordanian military intercepting as many refugees as they can when they cross the border. Thousands of refugees have been sent directly to the Zaatari refugee camp. Now, with the opening of the Azraq refugee camp, all refugees are sent to Azraq except refugees for whom UNHCR determines there are protection concerns. Regardless, most refugees, understandably, strongly dislike the camps.

Hence, there are many attempts to leave them. The main system that the Jordanian government has implemented to allow people to leave is known as the bail-out system. This system, which I briefly discussed in my previous post, was originally meant to be a compromise between UNHCR and the Jordanian government. For UNHCR, it is a way to give people some freedom to leave the camps. For Jordan, it is a way to facilitate effective monitoring of refugees when they leave the camps.

In practice, refugees have often avoided this system, choosing instead to bribe Jordanian military officers for the opportunity to leave the camps. These refugees do not get registered with the Jordanian Ministry of Interior, and only sometimes register with UNHCR. Therefore, large numbers of people are outside the official system, making them extremely challenging to monitor. It is therefore unlikely that Jordan would be hosting an estimated 100,000 unregistered Syrian refugees, as it currently is, if it were not for the border closures and restrictions. Now that there are so many unregistered refugees, officials fear that there is a serious risk that these unregistered Syrians will become involved in radical groups.

Through its own attempts to maintain its security, Jordan is creating security challenges for itself. Its decision to close and/or restrict entry at its border crossings with Syria has contributed to a situation where there is insecurity along the border and a growing number of unregistered, poorly monitored Syrians. Without such controls, there would surely be more Syrians in Jordan, but they would be easier to monitor. It is also likely that border areas would be more secure. Jordan would be safer as a result.

“10 Things to Know About Refugees in Jordan,” by Justin Schon

Justin10 Things to Know About Refugees in Jordan
by Justin Schon, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. His research focuses on insurgency and population displacement during conflict. He can be followed on twitter @goliathSchon

This post is the first of two posts I will be writing for this blog. It is based on the observations I have made and conversations I have had during my fieldwork in Jordan. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but they are all points that are important to know about the refugee situation in Jordan.

1)     Syrians are not the only refugees in Jordan

Although Syrians have stolen much of the attention in recent years, Jordan is actually home to many groups of refugees. The largest of these groups is Palestinian refugees. However, Jordan also hosts large and growing numbers of Iraqi refugees. Then there are many other smaller groups of refugees, such as Sudanese and Somali refugees, as is discussed here. All of these groups face serious challenges in Jordan.

At the same time, the types of challenges these groups face can be very different. Syrians are currently the high profile group, so there are a lot more aid organizations focusing their efforts on them. At the same time, they may also be more likely to be the victims of backlash against refugees than other refugee groups because of that high profile. On the other hand, Sudanese and Somali refugees are a small and often ignored group. These groups even have difficulty acquiring refugee status.

Thus, when thinking about responses to refugee influxes in Jordan, it is a mistake to lump all refugees in Jordan into one category. Their needs are different, and they can require very different responses.

2)     Most Syrians are not living in the refugee camps

Currently, more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan do not live in a refugee camp. Zaatari may capture a lot of the public interest and media headlines, but the refugee camps only contain a small portion of the total Syrian refugee population in Jordan.

This means that the focus of the response to Syrian refugees needs to be on urban refugees. The Jordanian government has stressed, justifiably, that aid programs should target geographic areas, rather than refugees specifically, so that Jordanians can benefit from these programs as well. UNHCR and the broader INGO and NGO community generally agree with this goal, so it should not be seen as controversial.

3)     Refugees strongly support the Free Syrian Army

Many refugees in Jordan have friends or family that fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the FSA is instrumental in helping many people leave Syria. So, it should come as no surprise that many of the refugees in Jordan support the Free Syrian Army. There is speculation about how much support IS/ISIL/ISIS has among Syrian refugees in Jordan, but my own work has made me skeptical of this claim. Some Syrian refugees are even convinced that the Assad government and ISIS are in an alliance, making it even more unlikely that they would be willing to support ISIS.

4)     It is unlikely that there would be a large voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees if Assad were allowed to take control of southern Syria.

One of the arguments for allowing Assad to win the war is that it would at least be a way to bring stability to Syria and provide a way for Syrian refugees to return to Syria. There is some logic in this, but the conversations I have had with refugees in Jordan do not support the argument.

For many refugees in Jordan, they were specifically fleeing from government troops and pro-government militias. Even if Assad were to create stability in Syria, many Syrians would be unlikely to return voluntarily because the source of their fear would remain in power.

The word voluntary is important because the Jordanian government is showing a desire to encourage Syrian refugees to return to Syria, even at the cost of suffering protests from UNHCR and numerous NGOs. If Syria becomes stable, then Jordan could use the norm of safe return, rather than non-refoulement, as its rationale for repatriating Syrian refugees. In short, safe return is the idea that refugee return is facilitated by host governments when the origin country becomes safe. It does not have to be a voluntary return. Non-refoulement means that refugees should not return to their origin countries unless the decision has been made voluntarily and without coercion. This legal distinction between safe return and non-refoulement is important to consider, and could become relevant in the case of Syrian refugees.

5)     Refugees often pay close attention to what is happening back in Syria.

Every refugee that I have spoken with has told me that they regularly call friends and family that are still in Syria. They even frequently watch television and surf the internet. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are also used by many people. So, the Syrian refugee community in Jordan is very engaged in following and discussing the events taking place inside Syria.

6)     Syrians in Jordan know more about the conflict in some ways than Syrians in Syria.

Consuming so much information does often mean that Syrian refugees are consuming more information than they were when they were back in Syria. In addition, many people that primarily watched movies and television series before the war switched to watching the news during the war. Meanwhile, many television channels and internet websites have gotten blocked by the Syrian government. Television channels can change their broadcast frequency, but this is still an impediment for those attempting to get their news from watching television.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is actually consistent with some recent work published by Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre. Refugees often consume more information than other civilians.

7)     Syrian refugees are not welcome in Jordan long-term.

Syrians currently make up about 10% of the population inside Jordan. This influx has strained Jordan’s economic resources, security services, and environmental resources. Thus, Jordan has made it very clear that aid organizations should avoid livelihoods programs or any measures that would encourage Syrians to stay long-term. For example, Syrians cannot obtain work permits, and Syrians caught working without a permit risk serious harassment or punishment from the Jordanian government. There is even a possibility of deportation back to Syria in some of these cases.

While it would be preferable for Jordan to welcome Syrians for as long as they should choose to stay, the government’s response must be taken in context. It is facing security challenges in both Iraq and Syria, high unemployment domestically, water shortages, and rising discontent among its domestic population with the Syrians. One could even argue that it is amazing that Jordan has not struggled even more with the strain of hosting so many refugees.

8)     There is disagreement about whether Syrians that want to return to Syria should be encouraged to do so.

This is related to the previous point. UNHCR considers Syria unsafe for refugee repatriation, even if it is voluntary. However, the Jordanian government encourages refugees to return to Syria if they are willing. Therefore, UNHCR has chosen to monitor these returns to ensure that they are least voluntary. As time passes, this dynamic is important to watch.

9)     The bail-out system is flawed.

One quirk of the Jordanian system of hosting refugees is that Syrians can leave the refugee camps if a Jordanian pays 300 JD and agrees to take responsibility for the refugee. This system was meant to be a way to allow Syrians to leave the refugee camps while providing a way for Jordan to continue monitoring the movements of Syrian refugees.

Officially, the Jordanian is supposed to be of a certain age, be married, have no criminal background, and satisfy several other characteristics. Unofficially, additional money can be paid to get around these requirements. Fake papers are used in some circumstances. These issues have meant that the bail-out system, which was originally meant to be a compromise with good intentions, has now become a system that encourages bribery and pushes many refugees under the radar once they leave the refugee camps.

10)  Border closures have many negative effects upon civilians.

Jordan’s decision to close border crossings from Syria has produced many additional hardships for displaced Syrians. Syrians unable to cross at the border crossings near Deraa often have to find an illegal border crossing. Much of the crossing happens in the eastern part of Jordan, where there is little but desert. Making this trip takes much more time, costs a lot of money, and exposes fleeing Syrians to the risk of more checkpoints. This is not to mention the large displaced persons camps that have emerged along the border due to being forced to wait for permission to cross the border.

In my second post, I will discuss these challenges in greater detail. I will be focusing on this point because border closures do involve tremendous costs for displaced Syrians. These costs merit additional discussion.

* This work was supported by a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarship and a grant from the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.
my website: http://justinschon.yolasite.com/