Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh recently announced that Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman would be expelled from the country, and Syria retaliated by saying that Jordan’s charge d’affaires would be expelled in return. The decision to expel Ambassador Suleiman appeared to have been prompted partly by Suleiman’s call for Syrian citizens to vote in the upcoming Syrian Presidential election. However, there are two things about this situation that need to be taken into account. First, a spokeswoman for the Foreign ministry also indicated that there were other reasons for Suleiman’s expulsion, including allegations that Suleiman engaged in actions that were offensive not only to Jordan but to Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well. Second, despite the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador, some Syrians resident in Jordan did indeed participate in the Syrian Presidential election, which is to be held in Syria next week.
What does the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador signify when Jordan ended up allowing Syrians to participate in the election? It appears, more than anything else, to signify the difficult position that the continuing crisis in Syria has placed Jordan in.
First, the Syrian election is clearly a farce. The country has been ravaged by conflict for more than three years in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died and almost three million have been displaced from their homes. It is inconceivable that any country would be able to successfully hold an election under these circumstances, even if it had a strong record of democratic elections prior to the outbreak of the conflict, which Syria does not. Indeed, the Syrian election is to be held under rules that are almost guaranteed to assure a victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The decision by Jordanian authorities to allow Syrians resident in Jordan does not by any means signify that the Jordanian regime supports an effort by the Syrian regime to undertake what is essentially a show that it still has many supporters in Syria despite the conflict.
However, Jordan may have decided to allow Syrians to vote at the Syrian embassy for another reason, despite the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador. This reason has little to do with the opinions of Jordanian authorities about Bashar al-Assad, and much instead to do with both internal demographics in Jordan and the stresses that the conflict has placed on Jordan. According to UNHCR, there are almost 600,000 Syrians resident in Jordan, which potentially places significant stresses on Jordan demographically. The Jordanian regime will undoubtedly seek to have as many of these refugees as possible return to Syria after the conclusion to the conflict. Therefore, when refugees residing in Jordan seek to vote in the election, even if it only involves the limited number able to travel to Amman, they are signifying their connection to Syria as well as their desire to eventually return, even if participation in this election also signifies support for the Syrian regime. Jordan is not about to prevent refugees from signifiying their interest in a return to Syria at some point in the future, even if that point would come after the end of a conflict that is currently not forseeable. For this reason, the Jordanian regime likely decided to move forward with allowing Syrians to vote despite the decision to expel Ambassador Suleiman
According to a recent statement by Amnesty International, many of the refugees who have been recently waiting to cross the border from Syria into Jordan are families with young children who are fleeing the ongoing conflict. One of the examples that was discussed in the same Ammon News article is the case of Amina, who was told to return in a month with her six children. This is despite the fact that the conflict has prevented them from being able to return to their home village of Dera’a al-Hera, forcing them to live out on the road and forage for food. There were also reports of other families with young children who were being forced to turn back when they attempted to enter Jordan.
In an ongoing conflict such as this one, denial of entry into a neighboring country can mean a literal death sentence for many refugees. Said Boumedouha, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle Eastern division said that Jordan (and other neighboring countries) have an obligation not to deny entry to refugees. He also said that it is also important for other countries to provide aid to states like Jordan which are affected so heavily by the conflict. These reports of Syrians who can provide evidence of their citizenship in Syria represent a new and much less welcoming attitude to refugees who are escaping a desparate situation. Regardless of one’s belief about the effects of the conflict on Jordanian infrastructure, few would dispute the fact that it is immoral to deny children the chance to escape from a violent conflict. A report from December 2012 (which is admittedly several months old) say that a majority of the refugees in Jordan may be children. Many of these children have resorted to attempting to sell goods to other refugees for a little bit of income to provide for necessities.
It is true that the presence of the refugees has provided a strain on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure at a most unfortunate time. It is also true that the situation in the region as a whole compounds the difficulties to a large degree. Particularly stressful for many communities is the influx of refugees who are settling in urban areas rather than living in refugee camps, which makes aid more difficult to deliver. Another way that the conflict has stressed Jordan’s infrastructure is through the impact of lost trade revenue with Syria, prompting the economic collapse of communities that used to depend on trade with Jordan’s northern neighbor. When this economic collapse is coupled with an influx of refugees it is not surprising that a degree of resentment would develop among some Jordanians towards the refugees who have become unwitting symbols of the difficulties that the conflict is causing in Jordan. This resentment is not surprising but it is also unfair to direct it at the refugees or to blame them for the situation that the conflict has caused for Jordanians.
The decision to turn away child refugees is deplorable, but admitting more refugees when the pace of aid is unclear is indeed going to further strain Jordan’s resources. Families with young children must be allowed to escape the conflict, but more recognition is required of the strains on Jordan and indeed other neighboring states that the conflict in Syria has caused. Perhaps the real issue is not really the presence of refugees themselves but rather the fact that most of the parties supporting either side in this conflict are participating for real or perceived strategic advantage, while shifting most of the harm of the conflict onto neighboring states such as Jordan.