While most countries view mass immigration as a security concern, Jordan is in the unique position of being both reliant on the flow of refugees and required to reduce the number of people crossing its borders.
Covering less than 90,000 square kilometres, Jordan is in every sense of the word a small state. The country lacks the hydrocarbon deposits of the Gulf states, nor does it have access to major regional trade routes.
While Jordan appears to have little capacity to take in mass refugee flows, it is consistently ranked as having one of the highest refugee intakes in the world and has the highest refugee to native population ratio in the world.
Despite not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Jordan has taken in over half a million Syrian refugees, which have added to the large Palestinian refugee population already in the country. Today, the total refugee population numbers approximately 2.4 million, meaning one in every three people in Jordan is a refugee.
The reason for this large refugee population is often attributed to its geographic location. Bordering the West Bank, Iraq and Syria, Jordan has remained stable despite regional turbulence, making it an attractive destination for those fleeing conflict.
However, this can only partly explain the Hashemite’s Kingdoms huge refugee population; Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both share land borders with Iraq and neither have the same demographic makeup, nor are Qatar, Oman and the UAE far removed from Iraq and Syria. Yet despite the Gulf states being far better resourced to host refugees, they have offered no resettlement places.
Rather, it is Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Turkey that have borne the brunt of refugees. Not only are each of these countries geographically proximate to Syria, but, with the exception of Turkey, all share two factors: weak central government, and poor border security.
Jordan, on the other hand, has a strong, unified central government that maintains tight control over its borders. As one of its key regional allies, the United States has contributed significantly to Jordan’s border security. Washington has provided funding and training to Jordanian border forces and committed to the Jordan Border Security Program, which has awarded substantial contracts to the Raytheon Company to install fences, sensors and a modern command and control systems along the country’s borders with Iraq and Syria.
The Hashemite Kingdom also has a historical commitment to refugee intake, something the country’s monarch, King Abdullah, called a “moral point of view” on refugees. But there is also a materialistic incentive, one that is often overlooked by many observers.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and, Kuwait have extended $5bn in financial aid to Jordan since the start of the Syrian conflict. These countries have an interest in maintaining Jordan’s commitment to refugee settlement and, in doing so, acting as a buffer state between themselves and the carnage in Syria.
States outside of the Middle East have also extended assistance to Jordan; the U.S. increased its aid from $660m to $1bn in 2016 while in 2015 Germany committed $215m to help the country deal with its mass migrant influx.
There exists a pragmatic and mutually beneficial relationship between the GCC and Jordan: wealthy Gulf states provide aid and remittances, in return for Amman’s willingness to stem migration from Syria.
In exchange for accepting refugees Jordan has also built up political capital and international standing, often acting as a broker between larger regional powers. In recent years this has been evident in diplomatic relations with Israel. These relations have become stronger as the region has plunged into instability. Israel provided U.S. Cobra combat helicopters to Jordan in July 2015 and there are ongoing negotiations over the tensions at the Temple Mount.
But the cost of refugees fleeing south from Syria is reaching breaking point. Water supplies are strained, youth unemployment is at 30 per cent and public sentiment has reached boiling point. There are weekly protests after Friday prayer, growing tensions between the refugee population and native Jordanian. While King Abdullah has been known to attend events with his Palestinian wife to quell tensions, public opinion is turning against mass refugee intake.
The cost-benefit analysis of refugee intake, in exchange for international remittances and diplomatic favour is buckling under the pressure of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict. While promise more aid will provide some relief, this will only be temporary.
Ultimately, the humanitarian position Jordan has cultivated under the previous two monarchs may be coming to an end.