THE BLOG

A Border That Breaks: Jordan as the Alternative Homeland

06/09/2013 11:45 BST | Updated 05/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Earlier this week, the United Nations declared Syria's refugee crisis the 'humanitarian calamity' of the century. Every day, roughly 5,000 refugees flee Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs. The number of Syrians who have left their war-ravaged country has risen to more than two million. A year ago, that number was 230,671.

Where do they go? The inflow is placing a huge strain on the neighboring country of Jordan, which hosts 515,000 registered Syrian refugees, representing eight per cent of its population of 6.2million people. Many join already overcrowded refugee camps, such as the Zaatari camp on the city's Northern fringe. It is now the second largest refugee camp in the world.

When Syria's civil war began, many Jordanian families opened their doors to refugees. Interviews I conducted with UNHCR aid workers placed in the Zaatari camp in mid July revealed that Jordanians saw themselves as "hosts of countries where they have wars." And according to Jordanian elites, the needed stability decreased the likelihood of war happening at home. But the inflow has been so much larger than expected that relations between the new arrivals and host population have become strained. This has important implications for the durability of Jordan's current monarchy. The 'Hashemite strategy' has never been a simple matter of divide and rule, but rather, of pluralism and inclusion of different identity groups. This is bolstered by fear of Jordan becoming al-watan al-badil, or the alternative homeland. This fear has been amplified not only because of collapsed peace processes with Israel, but also by the post 2003 surge of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, coupled with the current influx of refugees from Syria. Quite simply, refugees have changed the political climate in Jordan, vis-à-vis the state's ability to absorb, detain, or deflect them.

In 2007, the Jordanian government wildly overestimated how many Iraqi refugees needed aid - by a factor of between five and ten - as a tactic for gaining financial assistance from the international community. But now, like the boy who cried wolf, the ability of the country to absorb Syrian refugees has become a growing issue. 78,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the beginning of Assad's military crackdown last March. Jordan hosts between 700,000 to 800,000 Syrian refugees, amounting to a staggering 11-12 percent of Jordan's total population. By comparison, Syrian refugees in Turkey represent, at most, 0.5 percent of Turkey's population. In parts of Jordan's Northern region, Syrian refugees make up more than half of the local population. The daily influx of refugees has increased dramatically, with the Jordanian government estimating that the number of refugees will easily reach 1 million by the end of 2013.

This is not without consequences. The social contract that has kept the Hashemite throne intact has involved securing the support of the Bedouin tribes indigenous to the east bank of the Jordan river through generous welfare benefits and privileged access to state jobs, first and foremost in the security forces, in exchange for their loyalty in the face of challenges from the Palestinian majority. Even without a political shift that reallocates resources, the patronage system (known locally as 'wasta') is under breaking strain. So the state faces dual challenges to its legitimacy: the first being from the Palestinians, among whom the Muslim Brotherhood is strongest, demanding greater democratic representation, and the second, in the form of Bedouin tribes protesting against corruption and the loss of their traditional economic privileges from a nation on a cancerous fiscal deficit.

In the future, this is likely to affect the protest culture in Jordan. The pan-Arab identity has often been used by the Muslim Brotherhood to bolster their protests. Now, the front is using refugees as a political tool to increase their numbers. Many who joined the Muslim Brotherhood on the street during the last few months were, in fact, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The austerity policies that are fueling rising tensions are expected to get worse, with the authorities already having made clear that the next government will be expected to increase electricity prices and impose power cuts to meet conditions of a $2 million IMF loan granted earlier this year. Coupling these on-street movements with a lack of government jobs will certainly increase voices of dissent. However, because the divided group of opposition consists formerly of Islamists, the country's secularists, minority, and elite groups may well end up supporting the Hashemite regime in place, for fear of a repeat of Egypt. As the civil war continues in Syria, with increasing involvement of Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, Turkey, and Western and Arab countries as proxy players, it remains to be seen if these differing viewpoints can be reconciled in one of Syria's most important neighbors: Jordan.