For Mohammed Khair-Aldin, Jordan is a haven from his hometown of Joobar in war-torn Syria. “There’s no life there,” said the 23-year-old, who now has a steady job working as a sous-chef at a restaurant in the old city of downtown Amman. “Here they are welcoming us with open arms.”
Jordan currently hosts the greatest number of Syrian refugees, estimated to be more than 500,000 or 10% of the Hashemite Kingdom’s population. But with an already failing economy, Jordan has found itself in a catch 22.
“Syrians are our neighbors, our brothers. We can’t say no,” said Jawad Anani, president of the governmental Economic and Social Council of Jordan.
But with more than 4,000 Syrian refugees crossing the border daily with no end in sight to the Syrian crisis, he noted that Jordan will not be able to extend its hospitality as it has done since the beginning of the crisis two years ago because the economy will not survive.
“If we try to solve the Syrian problem we create a bigger Jordanian problem so we’re doomed if we do and we’re doomed if we don't.”
In January, the Economic and Social Council of Jordan presented a report stating that last year Syrian refugees cost the Jordanian economy almost 600 million Jordanian dinars (over 800 million US dollars), or 3 percent of the nation’s GDP in resources and services.
“They are taking away from Jordanians and draining the economy – with no end,” said Anani. And the problem is only getting worse as the number of refugees is expected to double by the end of 2013. “There is a limit to what Jordan can do.”
But there is a debate where some Jordanians say the government can do more by using its predicament to its advantage.
“This is just half of the equation,” said Yusuf Mansur, an economic analyst who argues that just as Syrians cost the government so do Jordanians, the difference being that Jordanians can give back because they are allowed to work. “Syrian refugees will help build the economy if we let them - allow them to work!”
The belief is that by making it easier for Syrian refugees to work it will serve to Jordan’s advantage. Like in the case of Khair-Aldin who received an identification card and work permit with help from UNICEF and the Jordanian government. With his salary he is able to support himself and even help out his family with whom he lives in Zarqa.
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"We are gaining from having these people in our country”
“The ample supply of cheap labor should lower wages, production costs and increase the overall economic activity,” said Mansur. Syrian refugees are willing to do jobs Jordanians are not, therefore not necessarily serving a threat to Jordan’s already high 30% (unofficial) unemployment rate. “They are competing with other Arab guest laborers, not Jordanians.”
Currently Syrian refugees are legally restricted to working within the camps they live in, but despite this Jordanians are seeing more and more Syrians working in coffee shops, as vegetable sellers, or as contract workers for hire. That is because most Syrian refugees are not living in refugee camps and are finding work under the table.
“So whether they are allowed to work is immaterial, they are working anyway,” said Anani.
However, most Syrian refugees entering Jordan more recently are not able to work. “The big influx of refugees are children, women, and sick people and people who have been traumatized by war,” he said. They require hospitalization, psychological care, and education, therefore only meaning costs for Jordan without being able to give back.
Despite the debate over the cost/benefit balance of Syrian refugees on the economy, Jordan’s main concern with this sudden increase in population is resources.
“In Jordan it is not a matter of who is paying for the resources, it’s a matter of if there are resources or not,” said Anani.
When it comes to resources such as food, a greater population will not necessarily stress Jordan’s supply as it already imports 87% of its food, where the country may even stand to benefit from discounts due to an increase in demand, but for resources such as water that can’t so easily be imported, it doesn’t matter who is paying for it as there isn’t enough even for Jordanians.
As Jordan continues to ask the international community for help in aid and resources, some Jordanians worry that this type of discourse highlighting Syrian refugees as the cause of Jordan’s failing economy and the suffering of Jordanians will create socio-political tensions between Jordanians and Syrian refugees as it has in the past with Iraqi refugees from the Gulf War in the 90s.
Skirmishes between Jordanians and Syrian refugees are already being reported, and if the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan does reach the estimated 1.2 million by the end of the year, which rivals the estimated 2 million Palestinian refugee numbers, more conflict is expected to loom ahead.
“It’s not right, let them work, rent houses in Jordan and avoid the violence,” said Mansur, adding that just as the then Iraqi refugees are now brothers and sisters in Jordan, so are Syrians.
“We have to fight the stereotypes and say look, we are gaining from having these people in our country.”