By Jesse Marks
Swelling conflict in Syria has created one of the most complex multilateral and transnational threats facing the Middle East. With over four million Syrian refugees in the Levant and Turkey and nearly eight million internally displaced persons (IDP), the traditional framework of the Levant is quickly transforming the very fabric of modern-day Syria and Jordan, where new challenges arise in maintaining regional stability. Jordan, a nation whose ethnic Jordanian population has become the minority within a matter of decades, faces various threats to its own economic and social stability with the addition of nearly one million Syrian refugees (630,000 registered with UNHCR and an unknown number of unregistered persons as of December 23, 2015). First, the creation of a no-fly, safe zone, enforced by the US-led coalition for Syrians and refugees in southern Syria, is a necessary strategy to provide protection for vulnerable populations in Syria. Second, the provision of work permits to a sizable percentage of legally registered Syrian refugees in Jordan is necessary in insuring a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship between refugees and Jordan. These migrations in Syria and Jordan, if not addressed by the United States and international community, will have negative long-term impacts on regional and international security, human rights, and the resettlement of refugees.
Following the sharp rise of non-state actors (ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra) in Syria since 2014, large swaths of territory and millions of Syrians have fallen under extremist occupation. Many of those facing oppression within their own borders have fled to the Jordanian border or have been scattered throughout more rural regions of Syria. The involvement of international actors via financial, material, and military support, especially lending from Russian airstrikes, further complicates the IDP situation, as attacks often target areas where civilians congregate: markets, schools, hospitals, and residential areas, among other public hot spots. Since July 2015, territorial shifts between combatant groups have inched toward closer to a stalemate in major battleground cities, spanning Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, rural Damascus, and Dar’a according various humanitarian and research organizations (UNHCR, ACAPS, and IOM). Despite the military stalemate, violence continues to escalate, further exposing Syrians in these sensitive areas of conflict, leading to increased displacement of thousands. Among those also affected are Palestinian and Iraqi refugees living in Syria.
Although the situation has steadily worsened since the start of the uprising in 2012, the world only became aware in 2015, when the increasing Syrian IDP exodus, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the Middle East for Europe in search of safety and livelihoods. Increasingly, the option of fleeing to neighboring countries or even risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean became an attractive option for many. There is little doubt that refugees forced to flee to informal camps on the Jordanian and Turkish borders find themselves exposed with minimal access to basic survival needs. Among those are 14,000 refugees currently are awaiting entrance to Jordan’s eastern border just few kilometers from ISIS forces. This highlights the difficulty of accessing refugees and IDP’s who are stranded in informal camps. Because of international borders, negotiations must take place between lead agencies (UNHCR) and governments. These challenges allude to the need of a new strategy to ensure long-term solutions for IDP’s and refugees in Syria.
The creation of a no-fly, safe zone, enforced by the US-led coalition in southern Syria would provide a long-term solution to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable Syrian populations. Many key factors in southern Syria play a vital role in the conception of such a zone including existing relations between southern tribes and Jordan, the presence of the Free Syrian Army, and a large refugee population in Jordan that originated from southern Syria. These factors make southern Syria the ideal location to secure and enforce a safe-zone. This safe-zone will provide alternative settlement for IDPs, as well as ease of access for humanitarian groups to build a community infrastructure, provide human services (healthcare and education), and revitalize economic trade with Jordan- a pillar of Jordan’s economy is agricultural trade with southern Syria. Additionally, the safe zone alleviates the financial and economic burden on Jordan to provide long-term settlement options for refugees by allowing Syrians in Jordan the option to return to southern Syria (where nearly 60% originated according to UNHCR). Likewise, it would slow IDP migrations to the Jordan’s eastern border where border policies have led to the establishment of two informal camps.
The largest obstacle to the establishment of a no-fly, safe zone is the question of enforcement and security. Securing the zone would require two forms of defense, areal and ground. A no-fly zone would be implemented similarly to the no-fly zone established in northern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 enforced by the US-led coalition. The no-fly zone alleviates the greatest threat in the south, aerial barrel bombs. Large areas of southern Syria are protected by the coalition-backed forces in Dar’a, the Free Syrian Army (who have been supporting refugees in the south since 2012). The FSA is comprised of numerous factions of religious, national, and tribal fighting groups. The connection between the FSA and southern Syrian tribes is a major reason for continued Jordanian support for the FSA because of the tribal ties between northern Jordan and southern Syria. Overseeing the defense and the enforcement of the zone as well as municipalities and daily operations would be a government elected in free, open elections overseen by the Syrian National Council.
Legal Employment for Syrian Refugees in Jordan
Due to relative stability, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains to be a cornerstone of US strategic interests in the Levant. Yet, in last few years, Jordan’s economy has been significantly strained by the addition of nearly one million Syrian refugees. In September, the Kingdom requested $4.5 billion from donor countries to continue providing for refugees. However, the amount of financial support Jordan receives is expected to decrease in 2016 as the EU tries to stabilize member states receiving large numbers of refugees. With limited space outside of refugee camps, urban refugees (refugees who live outside of camps and are 80% of the total) have limited options for shelter, legal employment, and funding for food. Therefore, many are driven to lower income areas of the country to re-establish themselves (Mafraq, East Amman, Irbid, etc). Housing and food prices have risen significantly while water scarcity continues to worsen. Key players like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program are providing refugees with limited financial assistance, but there is still a distinct lack of support.
Nearly 440,000 vulnerable refugees either lost all financial assistance or faced large cuts in September 2015. The best strategy to ensure Jordan’s stability amidst a refugee crisis is providing legal work permits for Syrian refugees. Providing financial stability for refugee communities in Jordan is intrinsic to Jordan’s long-term stability and security. The United States, who has invested over $4.5 billion into Syrian humanitarian response since 2012, has a strategic interest in the stability of Jordan (as stated in U.S.-Jordan Third Loan Guarantee Agreement signed in May 2015) whose further intake of refugees threatens its own security. The threat of instability among refugee populations is linked to various factors including access to legal employment opportunities, lack of financial assistance (from international organizations), and negative host community perceptions. Indeed, in the face of difficulty, there is opportunity. Syrians provide a work force to Jordanian employers, both dedicated and highly skilled. Syrians are willing and skilled to work a greater variety of jobs that many Jordanians refuse. According to the WANA Institute (research institute founded by Prince Hassan of Jordan), most Jordanians are largely employed in public administration and defense and represent only 7% of those working in construction and only 2% of those working in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Because Syrian participation will largely be focused in these sectors, there will not be increased competition for Jordanian jobs. Instead, it provides competition to the large illegal migrant population currently seeking these types of jobs in Jordan. Systematically, illegal migrant workers in Jordan will be replaced with a skilled, legal labor force.
Providing employment for Syrian refugees heavily reduces reliance on the humanitarian sector and international community. It increases financial stability for Syrian refugees thus decreasing the number of refugees requiring resettlement. Employed refugees do not rely as heavily on financial assistance relaxing the burden on international organizations, international donors, and the Jordanian Government. This will have a broader impact and will shift host community perceptions of Syrians as burdens on the economy to active members improving the economy. With increased economy and stability, social development (education, culture, art, and more) can flourish.
In conclusion, certain steps must be taken to ensure the safety of Syrians in Jordan and Syria amidst uncertainty facing the region despite hopes for a peaceful solution in the coming year. Providing safe settlement option is the best strategy that both decreases the number of IDP’s and allows the international community to continue fighting non-state actors. With no solution to the Syrian conflict in sight, intervention must be aimed at lessening the impact of population and refugee migrations in the Middle East and at the international level. Addressing the threat of population movements is necessary for maintaining Jordan’s stability, protecting Syrian IDPs, and slowing the flow of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.