Implications of the Geopolitical and Economic Constraints for Providing Legal Empowerment to Refugees in Jordan

Samar Muhareb

Samar Muhareb is the director of ARDD-Legal Aid. This piece was originally written for publication in Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter.

Since 1948, Jordan has been a destination for many refugees and asylum seekers from across the Middle East and North Africa – quite possibly the largest number hosted by any single country.[1] This is partially due to its location, bordering the West Bank and Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Syria – all countries that have witnessed wars and conflict. In March 2013, the number of refugees and their descendants registered (or awaiting registration) with UNRWA[2] and UNHCR[3] exceeded 2,800,000. Palestinian refugees account for approximately 2,000,000 of the registered refugee population.[4] As of mid-March 2013, there are approximately 450,500 Iraqis[5] and 290,000 are Syrians; in addition to Sudanese, Somalis and others.[6] The actual number of refugees is estimated to exceed the number of those registered by at least 200,000. This makes the total number more than 3,000,000, which is approximately equivalent to Armenia’s population.[7] The number is still growing, as Jordan continues to receive an average of 1,500 Syrian refugees daily.[8]

Each wave of refugees has had different but similar social, economic, political, and humanitarian implications for Jordan and the region. These implications have affected Jordan’s emergency response to the needs, specifically but not exclusively as pertaining to the provision of much needed legal empowerment services in a sufficient and adequate manner. The burden resides in accounting for the consequences of geopolitical and economic constraints, while addressing needs that are increasing due to these constraints. The need for empowerment aid services is key because it is not only a right in itself, but is crucial to the protection of refugees’ other basic rights.

Economic and Political Implications

Although Jordan remains relatively stable amidst the regional upheaval and the Syrian crisis, their economic and political impact is undeniable. Jordan is a small country with a small economy and a population of approximately 6,200,000. It suffers from a severe lack of natural and vital resources, especially fresh water. In recent years, the economic situation in Jordan has regressed considerably, and poverty rates and inflation have risen as prices continue to be hiked. This has been exacerbated by the Arab Spring and the accompanying regional security crisis, which affected tourism and investment. The Syrian crisis compounded these challenges further, as refugees accounted partially for the rise in fiscal deficit in Jordan to 9.6% of GDP in 2012 from 5.6% in 2010; and the rise in the gross public debt to 70.7% of GDP at the end of 2011 from 67.1% at the end of 2010.[9] This caused political turbulence in the country, and increasing public dissatisfaction.

The Syrian conflict has inflicted even more strain as it brought fear of the crisis overflowing into Jordan, adding security risks and costs. Border management is a challenge Jordan is left to address while keeping an open-door policy and receiving an endless stream of vulnerable refugees. The long border Jordan shares with Syria makes this difficult, and increases the threat of armed groups and combatants coming into Jordan surreptitiously.

Amidst these economic and political circumstances, Jordan has been ill-equipped to receive refugees and emergency response planning by Jordan and aid providers remains restricted. More than a hundred thousand refugees are hosted in hastily designated transit centers and camps, for security concerns; in addition to those who are received by host communities suffering from poverty, lack of services and infrastructure, and unemployment. These considerations, in addition to the resulting humanitarian crisis - the refugees’ basic needs of food, shelter, health and education services – make it absolutely necessary to find a balance between priorities, including legal empowerment.

Aid Shortage and Hard Choices

As the humanitarian situation deteriorates with the ongoing conflict in the region, and the international community remains slow in offering assistance, hosting states and the aid community are forced to make hard choices. For example, the number of injured, killed, and internally displaced in Syria is on the rise, making humanitarian intervention in Syria a necessity while at the same time accelerating the influx of refugees into neighboring countries. The lack of funds and limited access to Syria, however, makes responding in Syria difficult and operating in host countries more efficient.

Despite several appeals for funds launched by the United Nations (UN) and others, the lag in the aid is alarming. As of mid-March, the UN has only received one-fifth of the USD1.5 billion they had appealed for to cover the expenses of aid to Syrians across the region in the first half of the year 2013.[10] The share of the Jordan response is USD495 millions.[11] The UN described the Syrian crisis as ‘the worst crisis in terms of funding in recent history’.[12] This has inevitably hindered the ability to respond to all the needs and forced aid providers to narrow down the list of priorities considerably, to the most basic of needs. For example, UNICEF has recently announced its decision to suspend some of the basic services it offers Syrian refugees in Jordan.[13] Whether to plan on the long term or the short term is another dilemma that faces the aid community, especially in light of a lack of funds and the ambiguity of the political situation in Syria and host countries.

Legal Empowerment: Needs, Challenges, and Risks

The challenge to fulfill humanitarian and human rights obligations towards refugees while ensuring stability and security has affected the legal aid sector in particular. Resource constraints, obscure policies, limited legal training and limited funds have affected, among others, the security of refugees, their employment rights and documentation issues.

The pressures refugees put on Jordanian resources, especially in terms of clean water and fuel for electricity, have incited hostility and resentment amongst Jordanians. These feelings may at times translate into hate acts against refugees, compelling the latter to seek legal counsel and protection. These threats are further worsened by biased and insensitive media outlets, and negative stereotypes are reinforced.

The lack of services - compared to the increasing needs of refugees - has incited reciprocal resentment towards Jordanians, and unrest amidst refugees. Acts of violence in expression of dissatisfaction have occurred inside and outside the camp and transit centers, including arson, theft, and assault.

Violence and crimes have raised security concerns and driven the government to implement stricter regulations to restrict refugees’ mobility, especially inside the camp and transit centers, as well as access to these places. The complexity of the situation faced by Jordan, whose fulfillment of its humanitarian obligations needs to be balanced with its obligations to ensure the security of its population and the refugees, is clear.

Prominent examples of legal complications which surface due to stringent policies include irregular work and unregistered marriages. The Jordanian economy’s inability to absorb the refugee labor force, and fears of increasing unemployment, drove the government to prohibit refugees from working in Jordan. Instead of preventing refugees from working though, this resulted in rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation by employers and increasing irregular employment. Refugees in fact will continue to resort to irregular work in their attempt to provide for their basic needs untended to by aid providers. Preventing refugees from work is also liable to cause them to resort to illegal means of survival, further jeopardizing security. These may range from street begging to criminal offenses like larceny.

Another problem is marriages that are taking place in Jordan but remain unregistered in courts and legally unrecognized. This is due to Jordanian laws that require many documents in order to register marriages in courts – documents that are acquired from home countries and are inaccessible to refugees. This put refugees at further legal risk of losing their rights recognized by the Personal Status Law.

As the stay of refugees in Jordan lengthens, such policies complicate their lives further. As part of their coping mechanisms, they continue to marry, form families, create lives and bring children to the world, as well as have divorces. Performing these life functions outside of the legal framework compromises their rights and social and civil status. In order to well equip the legal system to regulate such actions to protect refugees and control the consequences, we need to ensure capacity and qualifications in the legal judicial system.

A relevant challenge with regard to this problem is the scarcity of trained human resources that posses the required skills and knowledge to deliver such services. There are no bodies, like study centers specialized in refugee studies, to produce knowledge to train capable policy makers, judges, lawyers, and investigators. Lack of knowledge and inexperienced personnel affects the flexibility of laws applied to refugees, and ultimately increases the need for legal services, which is on the rise and expected to exceed the supply.

Rigidity in certain policies governing refugees’ stay in Jordan and lack of funding are only few of the several variables rendering the work of legal aid providers more challenging. The obscurity of some policies and frequent changes in them pose another difficulty. Policies implemented vary depending on the relevant political and economic calculations and the nationality of the refugees, amongst other factors. For example, the policies governing Iraqi refugees in Jordan are different from those related to Syrian refugees, which in turn are different from those governing Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria.

The reliance of the legal aid sector on external funding also presents an obstacle. Jordan has no governmental legal aid system, and there is a general lack of commitment to a volunteerism culture in the legal sector among experienced and capable lawyers. Additionally, legal services are characterized by significantly high costs relative to the average income. This means that the marginilised cannot afford to obtain legal services. Refugees, amongst other vulnerable groups, are therefore entirely reliant on nonprofit legal aid providers, who in turn rely on limited funds from donors. Due to the limitation in funds, the capacity of NGOs is also constrained, and they are unable to respond to demands and needs. Funding is sporadic and short-term, so providers are unable to litigate for the long periods of time some cases might take, like labor and marriage registration cases. This, in addition to their lack of knowledge of Jordanian laws and regulations, leaves refugees at an additional risk of exploitation and rights’ violations and drives the demand for legal aid higher. It is this vicious cycle that makes a solution difficult yet extremely necessary.

Specific areas of legal protection where needs of refugees have concentrated are: labor, rent disputes, women at risk, unaccompanied children, freedom of movement, lack of documentations, and registration of marriages, divorce, and new-born children, as well as lack of awareness and knowledge of Jordanian laws and regulations.

Roles and Actions

While Jordan has played a hospitable role in times of crises in the region, and times of local socio-economic struggle, it is struggling to administer a stable, just, and accessible legal system for refugees. The shortage, delay, and lack of services accessible to refugees is causing complications and paving an easier path to violations of refugees’ basic rights. The demand for legal services is high and extremely important. ARDD-Legal Aid, in cooperation with the Protection Unit at UNHCR, has set a precedent in providing pro bono legal services to refugees - including consultations, legal representation, and legal awareness raising.

Nonetheless, the legal aid sector still requires serious reform in terms of laws, regulations, and policies governing refugees in Jordan. Burden-sharing is needed between NGOs and the government and can go a long way in contributing to the protection of refugees and ensuring security. The reform of the legal framework for refugees will not happen overnight, but it must begin soon. It is imperative not only for facilitating the fulfillment of our humanitarian obligations, but also for mitigating the impact of refugee crises on the regional peace.

[1] Data obtained by the authors via The World Bank’s DataBank tool

[2] ‘In figures as of 1 January 2012’, UNRWA, January 2012.

[3] ‘2013 UNHCR country operations profile - Jordan’, UNHCR, 2013.

[4] ‘Jordan: A refugee haven’, Géraldine Chatelard, Institut Français du Proche-Orient, August 2010.

[5] ‘2013 UNHCR country operations profile - Jordan’, UNHCR, 2013.

[6] ‘Jordan’, Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal, UNHCR.

[7] ‘Population, total’, The World Bank, 2013.  

[8] ‘Syrian refugees in Jordan as of 06 February 2013’, UNHCR, 2013.

[9] ‘Joint Jordan-UN appeal’, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNFPA, IOM, WHO, October 2012.

[10] ‘UN calls lag in Syria aid worst funding crisis in recent memory’, Nick Cumming-Bruce and Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, 15 March 2013.

[11] ‘Briefing: Humanitarian financing to the Syria crisis in 2013’, Lydia Poole, Global Humanitaran Assistance, 29 January 2013.

[12] New York Times, 15 March 2013.

[13] ‘UNICEF to suspend some services to Syrian refugees over funding shortfall’, Khetam Malkawi, The Jordan Times, 7 March 2013.


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