What Jordan’s Syrian Refugee Crisis Can Teach the Rest of the World
WASHINGTON — In the summer of 1949, three years after I traded my United States Army uniform for civilian clothes, and three months after I sold my half of a successful war surplus business I had started to my partner, I hopped aboard the Queen Elizabeth at the dock in New York City to move to Paris. Arriving in France two weeks later, the damaged road I took into the City of Light was the first visible sign that Europe was still recovering from the war that had taken more than 40 million European lives from 1939 to 1945. But it wasn’t until I tried to start a business exporting food to Germany that I came to understand that for millions of people, the horrors of that war continued to live on, but in different ways.
One in five German homes had been destroyed during the war, leaving 20 million Germans homeless, the vast majority of which were women, children, and the elderly. Another eight to ten million former prisoners of war, slave laborers, and death camp survivors had set out by foot to find food and shelter at war’s end, only to settle in refugee camps on German soil for as many as five more years, as most nations — including the U.S. — refused to grant visas or extend quotas to let in victims of the war. What I remember today as mass misery, history remembers as the largest mass migration in human history.
In the seven decades that have passed since, I never imagined that I would see a day when the total number of refugees, and the scale of human misery, would surpass what I saw in 1949. But I was wrong. Today, there are more than 25 million refugees, a fraction of nearly 70 million innocent people who have been driven from their homes by armed conflict in recent decades. Twenty percent of them are fleeing the murderous eight-year conflict in Syria.
Now, as then, the wealthy countries of the world have largely shut their doors to most refugees. Instead, battles over immigration in the U.S. and Europe have sparked a global populist revolt, with far-right nationalists winning office in elections from the EU Parliament to the Oval Office. But unlike World War II, when the U.S. and Britain oversaw the fate of displaced people, the front line of the refugee crisis today is being handled by a small, landlocked country in the Middle East that is about the size of the state of Illinois and has nowhere near the reach or resources of the West: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
With Israel to its west, Iraq to its east, and Syria to its north, Jordan is an island of stability in an ocean of violence. Refugees from all three states have been crossing Jordan’s borders since 1948, along with refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia. As of 2015, every third person in Jordan was a refugee.
One thing we’ve learned about refugees over the past seven decades is that if a person is displaced for five years, they are more likely to remain displaced for at least twenty years, and Jordan is a prime example. Of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who flooded into Jordan after the founding of Israel in 1948, many stayed. Today, around 70 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, almost two million of whom still live in refugee camps of one kind or another.
Where other nations might have crumbled under the weight of the influx, Jordan has held firm, thanks in large part to the leadership of His Majesty King Abdullah II and his estimable wife, Her Majesty Queen Rania, who is also Palestinian. I first heard of Abdullah shortly after he was a young military officer who had come to the US to train. Wayne Downing, a West Point graduate and four-star general who commanded America’s elite counter-terrorism teams and is known as the father of the modern Rangers, trained foreign soldiers who traveled to Fort Bragg to learn about democracy. Of all the soldiers he trained, he told me, Abdullah was one of the best.
Downing didn’t consider how the leadership skills he saw would be called upon to lead a refugee crisis, but Jordan’s embrace of refugees under Abdullah’s leadership — like its embrace under Abdullah’s late father, Hussein, before him — has been crucial to ensuring the refugee crisis does not spread to the rest of the world. As the U.S. faces increasing refugee challenges of its own — and as the credibility of U.S. leadership rests on our ability to deliver on the values we claim to stand for — it could stand to learn a few lessons in leadership from Jordan.
The first lesson: refugee crises are never contained — and solutions must quickly shift from short-term to long-term.
Jordan dealt with this issue in real time as it worked to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis. Despite Jordan’s long history of hosting refugees, the Syrian crisis has broken every record. Today, almost 1 in 7 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee. They are mostly impoverished, and more than half are children.
At first, Jordan adopted an open-door border policy, assuming that the conflict would soon be over and that refugees would eventually return home. What Jordan didn’t anticipate was just how massive the wave of Syrian refugees would be, and the economic burden that would put on Jordan’s government. By 2016, 650,000 refugees had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and these registered refugees had the right to public services like education, healthcare, and housing in camps.
But in truth, the actual number of Syrian refugees was almost double the number of registered Syrian refugees, meaning estimates of Jordan’s need for international help fell far below UN estimates. And because Syrians were not permitted to fully access the labor market, pay taxes, start businesses, or spend, they could never help relieve Jordan’s economic strain.
Realizing the futility of assuming the Syrian refugees would simply return home, Jordan worked instead with the international community to find longer-term solutions. The result was called the Jordan Compact. In return for billions in pledged grants and loans and relaxed trade regulations with the European Union, Jordan agreed to issue 200,000 new work permits for Syrian refugees in agriculture, construction, and production of goods. It expanded education to include all Syrian refugees, and it reduced fees for work permits.
The initiative was well-intentioned. But the Compact was designed without any input from Syrian refugees themselves, which leads to the second lesson: for policy changes to be successful, there must be trust between refugees and hosts.
In the early days after World War II, the U.S. had trust issues of its own, when the displaced in Germany — camp survivors and camp guards alike — were initially housed by nationality (Poles with Poles, etc.) without regard to roles. It meant, as historian David Nasaw has written, that “inmates and torturers” were housed “side by side” in “inhumane forced gatherings of victim and victimizer.”
Jordan has dealt with a trust issue of a different kind. Because of negative public opinion towards refugees as well as the lack of Syrian representation in the Compact’s creation, Syrian refugees doubt the Jordanian government’s motives, and many have not signed up for permits even with the new policies in place.
Jordan has tried to build goodwill by tweaking its policies to better accommodate the challenges Syrian refugees face. Just last year, the government began the process of regularizing the status of unregistered Syrians living outside of camps. This “amnesty policy” protected them from arrest and increased their access to employment, education, and financial assistance.
Unfortunately, the amnesty policy led to the third lesson: that host countries on the front lines of conflict need more money than is currently available, and that this funding must come from the international community.
Currently, Jordan fills gaps in funding by raising taxes. Since the beginning of the crisis, Jordanians have seen a tax hike of more than 42 percent, particularly on consumer goods like clothes and cigarettes. But almost a fifth of the population remains unemployed. A third of Jordanians fall below the poverty line at least once a year. And Jordan’s public debt now tops $40 billion, more than 95% of the nation’s GDP.
Jordanians cannot afford to pay higher taxes, and their protests have prompted resignations of Jordanian officials. But Jordan is also being forced to cut essential services for refugees. Just a few short months before the amnesty policy was announced, the Ministry of Health slashed healthcare subsidies for Jordan that were reportedly costing upwards of $2.2 billion a year.
The international community is supposed to ease Jordan’s financial strain by providing foreign aid and funding the UN and other international aid organizations. Yet, although the World Bank estimated that the 2016 cost of hosting Syrian refugees would top $2.5 billion, donors at the London conference pledged just $700 million in annual grants, and even limited funding promises too often go unmet.
Which is insanely short-sighted. Jordan needs international help, led by the U.S., to ensure not only that refugees receive the support they need, but also that the government remains stable. Political unrest in Amman could plunge the rest of the region into chaos, resulting in more volatility and more refugees in ways that will further challenge U.S. interests.
If we’re not willing to welcome refugees here, we need to be committed to supporting them there. Because if we can’t help them, as we learned in Europe seventy years ago, it’s not a failure of their morality — it’s a failure of ours.
Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security. His memoir, “Being Dead is Bad for Business,” and a collection of selected writings, titled “Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?” are available online.