Could Jordan be a melting pot for Syrian refugees as it is for Palestinians?
AMMAN - An influx of nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees plus tens of thousands of Iraqis, Yemenis, Libyans and other Arabs seeking shelter from wars in their homeland has overshadowed the presence of 2.2 million Palestinian refugees displaced to Jordan in two wars with Israel since 1948.
The Syrian war has topped Arab priorities, forcing the Palestinian- Israeli conflict to the rear as the Middle East and North Africa grapple with the aftermath of the “Arab spring” revolutions and the rise of militant Islam.
Analysts are quick to dismiss similarities between Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan, although they acknowledge that the Syrians are likely to remain in the country much longer than initially anticipated.
Mousa Ishtwei, director of the Centre for Strategic Study at the University of Jordan, said no comparison could be drawn between Palestinian and Syrian refugees “because of the differing circumstances shrouding each conflict”.
“In Syria, it is a security struggle and the possibility that refugees are repatriated home any minute [that] exists,” he said. “On the other hand, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is existential and Israel bans Palestinian refugees from going home.”
Jordanian newspaper columnist Nabil Gheishan speculated that even if Syrians ended up staying in Jordan for decades, “they will eventually return to their homeland”.
He added, however: “The Palestinians don’t have that luxury.
“They have no land to go back to because Israel has either annexed it or is gradually doing so to accommodate Jewish settlers.”
Hard-line Israeli politicians, such as Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have proposed alternatives to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
The hardliners point to Jordanian demographics, claiming that Palestinians make up a majority in Jordan. Thus, they say, they should be joined by the remaining Palestinians in the West Bank, who should be vacated to Jordan to make room for Jewish newcomers from Europe and Russia.
Jordanians, especially those of Palestinian origin, fear a plot to topple Jordan’s monarchy and drive the usually peaceful Arab nation into chaos.
With hard-line Israeli calls popping up every few years since the 1980s — the latest being in 2015 by Israeli education officials, Lieberman, Jewish settlers and ultra-orthodox Jewish groups — a right-wing Jordanian movement emerged in the 1990s and has been a source of annoyance to Jordanians of Palestinian extraction.
“Palestinians must pack up their bags and go home, with or without Israeli consensus,” said Ahmed Oweidi Abadi, a former lawmaker representing part of the right-wing tide.
“This is Jordan, not Palestine,” he insisted. “Palestine is west of the River Jordan and encompasses all lands from the biblical Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”, a reference to modern-day Israel, which was founded in British-mandate Palestine in 1948.
Jordanian officials, however, dismiss the Israeli chatter as drivel, saying the kingdom has a strong army to defend it, international alliances to protect its existence, well-being and interests and a leadership with a global standing and connections.
“Jordan is not a cardboard state to be blown away,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani. Illicit Israeli moves would be a violation of the Jewish state’s own agreements, primarily the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994, which recognised Jordan as a sovereign state neighbouring Israel, he added.
A national census conducted in November 2015 showed that Syrians constitute 46% of non-Jordanians living in the kingdom and 13.2% of the overall population. Of Jordan’s total population of 9.5 million, Jordanians make up 6.6 million. The number of non-Jordanians who reside in the country is 2.9 million — 30.6% of overall population.
Palestinian refugees were counted as part of the 6.6 million Jordanians because they have full citizenship rights in the country, including the right to vote and be elected or appointed to a public post.
Statistics Department Director Qasem Zoubi said the Syrian refugee population when the census was conducted was 1.265 million, compared to an estimated 1.465 million now.
He said the Syrians were followed by Egyptians, mostly unskilled labourers in the construction and industrial sectors, totalling 636,270, representing 6.68% of the population. Next in number were Palestinians, mostly from the Gaza Strip, who do not have citizenship rights in Jordan. They comprise 634,182 people, 6.65% of the population.
Iraqis followed with 130,911 (1.3% of the population), Yemenis with 31,163 (0.33%) and 22,700 Libyans (0.24%). About 197,385 people of several other nationalities, mainly Saudis, Kuwaitis and Europeans, also reside in Jordan, accounted for 2.07% of the population.
Gheishan said Jordan can “never be a melting pot for Syrians”.
“How could it be if Syria as a country exists and is likely to continue to for generations to come?” he asked.