Twelve Years of War in Syria: Why is Citizenship Off the Table for Syrian Refugees in Jordan?

Zoe H. Robbin is a Fulbright research fellow in Amman, Jordan. She co-leads Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Diplomacy Working Group. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the US Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Zoe tweets at @zoe_robbin.

Zeid Qiblawi is a social researcher from Jordan specializing in disaster relief and child protection. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Political Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Twelve years after the March 2011 outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Jordan now hosts more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees, over 80 percent of whom live in communities outside refugee camps. The suspended animation that Syrian refugees inhabit within Jordan is a function of both international and national policy; even though conditions are demonstrably unsafe for refugees to return to Syria, there remains no path to citizenship for refugees who have been living in the kingdom for a decade and counting. This lack of citizenship limits their ability to work, travel, and contribute to their host communities. The 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake has made the possibility of returning to Syria even more remote. Meanwhile, Syrian refugee resettlements in North America and Western Europe have reached paltry numbers, especially when compared with the alacrity that accompanied Ukrainian refugee resettlements. Instead, Syrian refugees remain in a state of protracted idleness, restricted mobility, and political dependence.

Starkly contrasting with Jordan’s rapid refugee integration program that met Palestinian refugees in the mid-twentieth century, Jordan’s reticence to broach the subject of Syrian integration is born of political, economic, and social dynamics. The relationship between Jordan and its Western backers also plays a role, as rich nations treat Jordan as a functional buffer state that offers refugee containment in exchange for financing, delivered through both the UN and direct funding to the government of Jordan. But this exchange between Jordan and its wealthy supporters in North America and Europe continues to dehumanize refugees, leaving them without prospects for the future.

“No one is going to go back to Syria,” said former World Bank official Omer Karasapan, during an interview we conducted in which he discussed Syrian refugees who face marginalization in their host countries. “The danger is that we create a permanent underclass of people who are desperate.”

Frozen in Jordan

Syrian refugees are overwhelmingly unwilling to return to their country of origin, where they would face poverty, violence, and military conscription. Recent surveys suggest that over 90 percent of refugees are unwilling to return to Syria in the foreseeable future.  Further, wealthy nations have failed to resettle significant numbers of Syrian refugees, leaving countries like Jordan to grapple with the population influx. The United States, for example, has only resettled around 29,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict. Meanwhile, it has already admitted 117,000 Ukrainian refugees through the “Uniting for Ukraine” program, which allows Americans to sponsor Ukrainians. The urgency with which wealthy countries resettled Ukrainian refugees suggests that their failure to resettle Syrian refugees is not a matter of capacity, but of political will. Accordingly, bureaucratic streamlining is unlikely to improve the outlook for these displaced communities. 

Jordan has avoided deporting refugees back to Syria, distinguishing their fate from Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey who have been forcibly repatriated. Although Western leaders seem determined to leave Syrian refugees in Jordan for the foreseeable future, Jordanian policy treats these refugees as temporary visitors, upholding barriers to their labor market participation and mobility. Although Jordan has begun easing work requirements for Syrian refugees, work permits require paying a fee, which is cost prohibitive for much of the displaced population. Further, sprawling refugee camps that were designed to house people in the short term have remained erect for over a decade. Most refugees are unable to leave the camps without a work permit, which serves as a one month leave permit. As a result, these temporary settlements have become segregated, longstanding communities located in abandoned expanses of desert. The parents of children born and raised in these camps report that they have never seen trees or animals in their young lifetimes. With the UN Refugee Agency facing a historic shortfall in funding, the quality of these settlements will likely continue to deteriorate. 

At the same time, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have pursued humanitarian programs for Syrian refugees, distributing food packets and cash grants. While this funding has helped stabilize Jordan’s economy, much of this humanitarian aid conceptualizes the plight of Syrian refugees as a temporary crisis to be met with emergency assistance rather than sustainable integration. There is now a question of whether emergency assistance should transition into development assistance for these displaced people, an approach which assumes a modicum of constancy in the membership, location, or infrastructure of their communities. 

Several NGOs have already begun transitioning components of their Syria response portfolios from emergency aid into development assistance, implementing skill building and community building programs. However, the success of these programs will be handicapped by government policies that limit economic and political integration among Syrian refugees, likely establishing a perpetually marginalized population within Jordan’s borders. 

Jordan’s Differing Approaches 

Jordan’s response to the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948 informs the government’s current reticence about integrating Syrian refugees. Jordan took a distinct approach to integrate waves of Palestinian refugees—an unusual experiment that it refuses to repeat for Syrians. Following the declaration of Israel’s independence in 1948, and subsequent displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians, Jordan formally annexed the West Bank in 1950. Almost overnight, the kingdom more than doubled its population, providing Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship. Today, the majority of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, and the crown prince is half Palestinian. 

Yet the Palestinian refugees’ integration came with political turbulence. The monarchy has been forced to walk a delicate line to maintain support among its Palestinian majority. It also subsequently changed its policy towards Palestinian integration, and Palestinians arriving from Gaza or after the Six Day War in 1967 have not received Jordanian citizenship. By then, severe tensions had begun to brew between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian monarchy, culminating in a brief civil war that ended with Jordanian victory and the expulsion of the PLO. In 1988, Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank, automatically revoking the citizenship of Palestinians residing there. Thousands of other Palestinians lost their citizenship in the following decades.

Today, Jordanian authorities are careful to avoid positioning Jordan as an alternative homeland for Palestinians. Jordanian women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, a regulation that Jordanian politicians favored to prevent the naturalization of additional Palestinians. A significant portion of Jordanian women who are married to non-citizens are married to Palestinians, meaning that this change could provide hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children with Jordanian citizenship. This balancing act left the Hashemite monarchy wary of formally accepting another large population of refugees. 

State of the Conversation

The prospect of political integration for Syrian refugees, which would entail a citizenship process like that of Palestinian refugees, remains taboo in Jordanian politics. Aside from the fear of short-term economic woes resulting from their integration in Jordan, the policy change would also force Jordanian society to tackle unresolved tensions with non-integrated Palestinians, whose fate has largely been left out of the debate. The myth that Syrian refugees will be returning soon has further silenced discussion about integration, even as Turkey renews hostilities in Northern Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to commit grave human rights abuses. As a result, the political integration of Syrian refugees is unlikely to happen.

The influx of Syrian refugees rapidly increased Jordan’s population, exacerbating existing economic and political issues. Jordan already lacks sufficient water resources and suffers from high unemployment despite its well-educated population. The presence of refugees alongside these economic issues has led to scapegoating, increasing tensions between Syrians and Jordanians.

The economic implications of providing citizenship to Syrian refugees are difficult to parse, but there is some evidence suggesting that increased economic integration would offset the effects of inflation and contribute to growth. More research is needed on this subject. Unfortunately, the idea has not been seriously considered in Jordanian policy circles. 

Today, refugee workers remain constrained in the types of jobs they can legally accept. Further, the king has pledged that for every job offered to a Syrian refugee, five jobs would be created for a Jordanian. These regulations to formal employment have resulted in Syrian refugees largely aiming to work in the informal sector, where they are vulnerable to exploitation and lack upward mobility. Without urgent changes in either resettlement rates or integration policy, the future of Syrian refugees will likely resemble aspects of life for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who have lived in a state of impoverished segregation for decades. 

Echoing the experiences of displaced communities across the border, these constraints will have generational impacts on Syrians and their host communities. With their only career prospects in low-skilled labor, Syrian refugee families are weighing the advantages of sending their children to school. Child labor is rising among these communities, as many families judge an education to be superfluous. In the future, the results of these decisions will lead to a drop in  the number of potential doctors, engineers, and lawyers that can contribute to Jordanian society. With integration off the table, Jordan is holding on to the hope that Syrian refugees will eventually return or resettle—two options that seem increasingly out of reach.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) or the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

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Zoe H. Robbin and Zeid Qiblawi
Zoe H. Robbin and Zeid Qiblawi