Jordan can no longer afford its humanitarian generosity
After opening its borders to the region’s displaced and oppressed for more than seven decades, Jordan is finding that even its hospitality has a limit.
This month, Jordan observed two ominous anniversaries, marking turning points in the history of a country transformed by the conflicts that surround it.
The first was the May 15 Nakba, or disaster, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed into Jordan almost overnight in 1948. The second was the fourth anniversary of the first influxes of Syrian families fleeing the military blockades and bombings of the Bashar Al Assad regime in Deraa in 2011.
The legacies of the two disasters are demographic. Over two million Palestinian refugees remain in Jordan, and an estimated 1.4 million Syrians have fled to the kingdom.
The costs of the refugee populations are high. UNRWA has an annual budget of $140m (Dh514m) for Palestinian refugee services while Jordan and the UN claim hosting Syrian refugees alone cost 2.8 billion dinars per year, about $3.9bn. But this year, one statistic has revealed that after 70 years Jordan can no longer afford its humanitarian generosity.
Unemployment has jumped 50 per cent since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, a recent ILO report revealed. About 42 per cent of young Jordanians remain out of work.
Highly skilled and willing to work for lower wages, Syrians are simply pushing Jordanians out of the workforce. Nearly one-third, or 30 per cent of Jordanians working in construction and agriculture, have left the sectors since 2011 due to the dominance of Syrian labour.
Only 10 per cent of the 650,000 registered Syrian refuges, or less than 5 per cent of the total Syrian refugee population, hold valid work permits. This has left the bulk of able Syrians, about 750,000, to work undocumented and unregulated in the grey sector, under conditions and salaries no Jordanian could afford to abide by.
In the lush farmland stretching from northern Jordan down to the Jordan Valley, Syrians tend and pick vegetables for as little as 5 dinars per day – less than half the minimum rate Jordanians used to receive. In Amman, Syrians fill restaurants, shopping centres, garages and factories, working for an average daily wage of 10 dinars, without insurance or social security – cushioning the profit margins of their employers.
At the northern border town of Ramtha, rows of storefronts remained shuttered. In Karak in the south, Syrian women are even replacing Jordanians in traditional crafts.
Yet rather than lending a helping hand to an under-pressure public, the Jordanian government is looking to further cut subsidies as it struggles with the estimated 1 billion dinars annual cost of hosting Syrians.
Less than six months after agreeing to raise electricity prices by 7.5 per cent, Amman is setting its sights on lifting subsidies on bread in a bid to shave 138 million dinars from the budget.
Jordanians are underworked, underpaid and overtaxed. It is hard to open up your home to guests when you cannot keep food on the table.
This is not to say that the international community has not been generous. Countries across the world have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help Jordan cope with the continuing influx of Syrian refugees.
Millions in funding have been poured into water wells, school expansions and revamped health centres.
While easing the burden on strained infrastructure, the flurry of development projects over the past four years have not created the one thing Jordanians needs most: jobs.
Many foreign NGOs bring in experts from outside Jordan, rely mainly on Syrian rather than Jordanian labour and bring in equipment from abroad. Only a handful of Jordanian suppliers benefit from the contracts.
More than just development projects, Jordan’s Arab and western allies should provide support to average Jordanians struggling to make ends meet. Donor countries and organisations should consider direct budgetary assistance to Amman to save the few subsidies Jordanians rely on, and economic projects leading to employment for Jordanians as well as Syrians.
Jordan has been a reliable friend to dozens of countries across the world, providing a lifeline for those in need. Now is the time to return the favour in kind.
If the international community does not act quickly, the nation that has stood as a beacon of hope for thousands of men, women and children may soon go dim.
Taylor Luck is a political analyst and journalist in Amman
Updated: May 25, 2015 04:00 AM