The Syrian refugee crisis: Burden or opportunity?

nabeel abu ata
Nabeel Abu Ata (Photo: Jordan News)
A decade passed since the start of one of the most prevalent humanitarian crises since World War II, with staggering damages and deaths that I refuse to dishonor by merely reporting the numbers.اضافة اعلان

However, it is time that the displaced Syrians be accurately reckoned and have their human rights and identities reinstated, homes restored and mental health looked after.

According to the UNHCR, there are 6.2 million internally displaced Syrians and another 6.7 million registered as refugees. Some 1.36 million of those landed in Jordan, according to the official account, which has never deviated from the “resource-scarcity” focused narrative, beseeching donors for monetary aid to support in meeting the basic needs of the massive refugee influx.

This official whining narrative of over a decade about the deficiency in donations towards the refugee “burden”, dominated our media and public perception to the point that crystallized it as being the monolithic excuse for the underperforming economy, therefore, excluded alternative frames that could have presented the refugee influx more as an opportunity than a “burden”.

As we tightened the policies on admitting Syrians into the country, and while our Ministry of International Cooperation and Planning (MoICP) continued its tireless efforts to highlight the funding gap in the Jordan Response Plan, demanding that donors translate their pledges into financial deposits; Egypt has been harvesting $23 billion in direct investments from Syrians who migrated to its territories, according to Rasha Syroub, the Syrian economic researcher investigating the Syrian capital efflux.

Turkey garnered $1.5 billion of Syrian direct investments in 7,500 officially registered Syrian enterprises that added 100,000 job opportunities to the Turkish economy, without accounting for the unsanctioned transfer of thousands of industrial estates from northern Syria into Turkey.

Lebanon, before its financial downfall, has attracted billions of US dollars in bank deposits from Syrian expatriates. 

Where was Jordan from all that? Apparently our share — post-COVID-times — was the registration of 4,000 small enterprises with a minor Syrian capital, not exceeding $310 million. In simple math, Jordan hosted 21 percent of the displaced Syrians during the war, while only inviting 0.9 percent of the Syrian capital that fled the war-torn country.

There is more to this calculation than numbers. The Syrian cultural scene, university research, art and cinematic production, and complex-artifact manufacturing endured a long freeze of activities in the period of the war. Logically, Syrians should have seen in Jordan the friendly and peaceful Levantine environment to transfer and resume such activities, but our government did not devise a “responsive” border admission or residency policy to facilitate the hosting of these trendsetters and innovators, in an attempt to transfer their knowhow and embed their skill sets in our communities and among our youth.

We did not do that, but Dubai, Cairo, Ottawa and Berlin did, as they had the luxury of selecting the crème de la crème of all Syrian cultured immigrants, opened their galleries to their paintings, their universities to their scholars, their production houses and financing to their cinematic arts and musicians, their skilled-labor market to their professionals and are selectively offering citizenship to the most creative and innovative of them.

Many will argue that this article does little justice to Jordan’s honorable ethical commitment and harms Jordan’s reputation as a generous host, but it isn’t this article that alludes to how the Syrian refugees are “exhausting Jordan’s absorptive capacities” or uses the word “burden” synonymous with “refugee”. In fact it is a quote from the official cover letter of the Jordan Response Plan 2020-22, signed by the former MoICP minister. This has been, unfortunately, our official narrative!

This attitude and narrative must change.

If the donors did not pitch in with their fair share, if we have failed the test of transferring the “knowhow” and attracting Syrian capital to Jordan, and if the gigantic project of “Rebuilding Syria” seems far-fetched, then we must not forsake the opportunity available now in the Syrian economy, and by this I am referring to the project “Sustaining Syria”, which Jordan is best-suited to launch and execute.

We have witnessed the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia in Doha, the Arab League openness to reinstate Syria as a member, Denmark telling Syrian refugees to go back to their safe homes, and it is time for us to think creatively and with resolve to flip Jordan’s narrative from one of “planning a response” to one of “plotting for action”, and to tenaciously push Jordan’s agenda in Syria’s present and future, while also keeping Lebanon on our radar.

One immediate action is to lobby the Biden administration for a waiver from the Caesar Act, to allow Jordan to export all of Syria’s electrical power needs — and perhaps some of Lebanon’s if there is a guaranteed payer. This will create a stir in Jordan’s economy that will switch our engines to full capacity and contribute to solving (even if not ideally) our energy debt/excess production dilemma.

There are many scenarios to benefit of “Sustaining Syria”, “Jordan Action Plot” should immediately replace its lagging “Response Plan” and present a different narrative to the donors: the international community will hear a different message: Jordan can no longer service the debts of others and then implore their aid.

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