Jordan's Syrian Refugees Inflame Recurrent Debates Over Identity

The influx of Syrian refugees in Jordan is setting off debates over national identity, recurrent over the past six decades as successive waves of foreigners from Palestinians to Iraqis came to take refuge in Jordan. Consequently, writes Qusay Jaaroun, those in the northern regions fear the naturalization of Syrians and tend to defend the Syrian regime.

al-monitor Syrian refugees who fled the violence in Syria wait for meals at their temporary home in the Jordanian city of Al Ramtha 24/04/2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Jarekji.

Topics covered

social unity, syrian, refugees, palestinian, identity

May 30, 2012

My slogans have long been “The Country of Immigrants and Loyalists” and “Jordanians From All Backgrounds and Origins.” These words reflected the state of diversity on which modern Jordan was founded, and to some extent, they constituted the official position of the Jordanian regime, which strives to avoid conflicts of identity. Nowadays, other slogans can be heard emerging alongside a conflict which has long remained taboo in Jordanian society. Today, slogans such as “Jordan for Jordanians,” “Jordanian Identity” and “Political Naturalization” can be heard frequently.

Those defending and preaching a Jordanian national identity find political, economic and social excuses to do so. They claim that Jordan has limited resources and cannot afford a considerable population increase. They come up with justifications for their fears of an imminent threat to Jordan’s social composition — allegedly emerging over a period of 64 years of asylum for Palestinians, followed by Syrian and Iraqi asylum.

However, defenders of the “Jordanian identity” are mostly incensed by the idea of ​​an “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians, and the growing fears expressed in Israeli and official Jordanian statements over the status of Palestinian refugees.

Jordan, which so far remains a safe island in a turbulent region, has always been a destination for refugees from neighboring countries, from the historic asylum of the Palestinians after the 1948 and 1967 wars to the Iraqis between 1991 and 2003 and the current influx of Syrian refugees. As a result, Jordan’s demography was rocked by radical changes over its short existence — the country will soon celebrate the 66th anniversary of its independence.

The refugees mostly ended up settling in Jordan, and became a contentious political issue given their size relative to the overall population, in essence making native Jordanians a minority, amid an absence of an official census that can end this conflict.

Fear over the "Jordanian identity” rises whenever refugees flow to Jordan, the “safe island,” as described by defenders of the country of “safety and security.” Today — with the influx of Syrian refugees, who are estimated at 150,000 by official figures and at a much higher number according to the statistics of relief organizations — there is emerging talk about national identity. This plays a role in political decision-making with regard to the crisis.

At the onset of the crisis, the Syrian refugees were formally described by the Jordanian regime as “guests.” After six months of a continuous inflow of Syrians fleeing the turmoil brought on by the year-and-a-half-old revolution, the regime labeled them “refugees.” This reflects an unwillingness by the Jordanian regime to embarrass the Syrian regime over the issue of the refugees, and its continuous refusal to recognize a refugee camp set up by the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the village of Raba al-Sarhan in the al-Mafraq governorate at the Syrian border. This was apparently decided to preserve Jordan’s national security, which some politicians believe the Syrian side will not hesitate to undermine.

According to certain economists, Jordan’s conservative stance toward the Syrian revolution is due to Syria being the main lifeline for Jordanian trade, 80% of which passes through Syrian territory.

The economic and political factors, as important as they are, are overshadowed by the factor of national identity and fears that the Syrian refugees will settle in Jordan as the Syrian crisis continues. There are fears that they will enter a “competitive” stage against the former refugees over the country’s resources.

It is noteworthy that the majority of Jordanians residing in the northern governorates lean toward defending the Syrian regime. This was reflected in the petition that was signed by Jordanian deputies of the northern governorates warning the Jordanian regime against being dragged into “the Syrian conspiracy.” The “threat to the Jordanian identity” embodied by the Syrian refugees goes back to the 80s, when the Jordanian regime naturalized the Syrians who fled after the events in Hama. Those Syrians were skilled traders and gained control over part of the country’s capital.

Naturalization later entered a conflicting stage, particularly after it was revealed that former intelligence chief Mohammad al-Dhahabi naturalized many Iraqis who had fled to Jordan.

In a reassuring gesture by the regime toward the defenders of “the Jordanian identity,” the ministry of the interior prohibited the sponsorship of Syrian Palestinians who have taken refuge in Jordan.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Qusay Jaaroun