Jordan shut out out 60,000 Syrian refugees — and then saw a backlash

Syrian refugee children stand in front of their home at Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq near the border with Syria, in February. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
Syrian refugee children stand in front of their home at Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq near the border with Syria, in February. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Over the past month, fighting in southern Syria has displaced more than 300,000 people — the most at any one time in Syria’s nearly seven-year civil war. More than 60,000 of these Syrians fled south, hoping to find safety in Jordan. But Jordan’s government closed the border and refused to let them in, claiming the country has already done enough to help Syrian refugees.

Many Jordanians reacted angrily to the government’s position — #OpenTheBorders became a top trending Twitter hashtag in the country as people called the decision shameful and vowed to share their bread with the refugees. Some Jordanians matched words with actions, organizing private relief efforts to help those trapped on the border. Under pressure, the government took steps to coordinate the aid campaign and allow some refugees to cross the border temporarily for medical assistance.

The public’s reaction may seem surprising. With record numbers of refugees displaced globally in recent years, public opinion has typically pushed governments to implement more restrictions on refugees, not fewer. However, our research indicates that this reaction was not an anomaly. Despite increasingly restrictive government policies targeting the refugee community, results from a recent survey in Jordan show that many Jordanians continue to be sympathetic toward the refugees and support hosting them in the country.

Why Jordan’s government closed the border

Jordanian officials feel strongly that their country has borne a heavy burden to help Syrian refugees, without adequate assistance from the international community. The government-affiliated Jordan Times recently captured that mood in an op-ed piece that said, “No one can blame Jordan for closing its borders to refugees after having welcomed and hosted hundreds of thousands of them over the past years . . . with little or no help and support from the international community.”

The Syrian refugee crisis has been a challenge for Jordan, which hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees. These refugees constitute approximately 7 percent of Jordan’s population, a far higher percentage than any country in the West, where the political backlash against refugees has often been severe. While Jordan has received billions of dollars in financial assistance from international donors to cope with this challenge, the government maintains that this aid has covered only a fraction of the costs, and the aid has not helped the country overcome a number of persistent economic challenges.

The Jordanian government has often blamed Syrian refugees for economic difficulties. A former prime minister said Syrian refugees were to blame for setbacks in development, increasing public debt, and rising poverty and unemployment among Jordanians. When the government announced an end to bread subsidies this year, it justified the decision by claiming that foreign workers and refugees were the primary beneficiary of these subsidies.

The actual impact of refugees on the Jordanian economy can be difficult to calculate, but there is little doubt that Jordanian officials believe it has been negative. They say that their hands are tied by public opinion and that more-generous policies for the refugees would spark a political backlash. In meetings with the authors, Jordanian government officials cited negative attitudes toward refugees as a reason for not doing more to help the Syrian community. Those beliefs, combined with concerns about political instability linked to the economic situation, probably drove the government’s decision to keep the border shut last month.

What Jordanians think about Syrian refugees

We conducted a survey of Jordanian attitudes toward Syrian refugees in February with the Immigration Policy Lab. The survey was administered by the Center for Strategic Studies to a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Jordanians and an additional sample of 300 Jordanians living in areas of high refugee concentration. We asked Jordanians about their attitudes toward refugees and perceptions of the refugees’ impact.

The results suggest that Jordanians agree with their government that the large inflow of refugees has negatively affected the country, particularly with regard to economic and security issues. The overwhelming majority of respondents said that the refugees had negatively affected housing, the economy, public services, crime and terrorism.

What the government appears to have missed, however, is that these negative perceptions of the impact have not generated significant hostility toward the refugees. Many Jordanians continue to sympathize with the refugees and to support policies that would assist them. Only a minority of Jordanians in the survey said that the border should be closed to all refugees, and a slight majority continued to support hosting and assisting refugees.

A majority of Jordanians also rated Syrians positively on a feeling thermometer, and nearly 80 percent said that relations between the host and refugee communities were good.

In other words, even many of the Jordanians who believe Syrian refugees have negatively affected their country still want to extend a helping hand.

Implications for refugee policy

Despite having far fewer resources than wealthy countries in Europe and North America, Jordan has done far more for Syrian refugees fleeing from the terrible civil war. Its government has every right to ask that the international community do more to help.

But the Jordanian government can also do more to assist refugees, and our research suggests that it is unlikely to face a public backlash for doing so. While most of the Syrians who fled the recent fighting have now returned home, further spasms of violence could quickly send new groups of refugees streaming toward the border. In addition, tens of thousands of refugees have been stuck at Jordan’s Rukban border crossing for years, and Jordanian authorities have increasingly engaged in refugee refoulement by sending Syrians back home.

If the government would be willing to follow the public’s lead instead, it could, in some small but important measure, reduce Syrians’ suffering by opening the border to new refugees and halting forced returns.

Ala’ Alrababa’h and Scott Williamson are PhD candidates in political science at Stanford University and graduate fellows at the Immigration Policy Lab.

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