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October 24 2021 5:50 AM ˚

Will Jordan’s Syrian refugees ever return?

Border Crossing (MR Kailani)
Trucks wait to exit Syria at the Jaber/Nassib border post with Jordan on the day of its reopening, on September 29, 2021, after two months of closure due to fighting in southern Syria. (Photo: AFP)
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Jordanian-Syrian relations, considered remarkably hostile only a few years ago, have become rather warm and friendly as of this year. While Jordan once found itself in opposition to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime during Syria’s civil war, tensions between the two governments have calmed down at the same rate the conflict has. In Syria’s major cities, a sense of normalcy is beginning to reemerge, slowly yet cautiously. Although the sound of gunfire and shelling is no longer a common occurrence in Homs and Aleppo, many social, political, and economic factors that bred the Syrian civil war still exist, and these factors will be decisive in determining whether the many Syrians who sought refuge in Jordan will return to their beautiful yet bruised homeland.اضافة اعلان

Syrian refugees are estimated to make up over 10 percent of Jordan’s population, a number that puts a massive strain on Jordan’s already struggling economy. Even in 2016, His Majesty King Abdullah stated that Jordan is at a “boiling point”. “Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst,” he warned as Jordan continued receiving refugees from its wartorn neighbors. Now, the conflict has calmed down, and the Syrian government has pleaded for the 5 million Syrians who fled to return to their homes and help rebuild their homeland. This is the inherent desire of the refugees, proven by survey after survey and study after study. For example, the fifth regional survey on Syrian refugees, conducted in 2019 and asking displaced persons in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, found that 75 percent are hopeful to return to their homeland, yet 69 percent did not intend to do so within the next 12 months.

In reality, the sense of longing that Syrians around the world feel may not override the plethora of problems that the war has either created or exacerbated. While the average refugee may miss his scenic village on Syria’s green and lush hills, he has to consider the prospect of making a livelihood; a prospect that seems distant due to US sanctions on Syria. Unemployment is on the rise and bread lines expand as sanctions have made a dismal exchange rate of 1,257 Syrian pounds for every US dollar. The old Syrian strategy of storing finances in Lebanese banks is no longer an option as Lebanon’s currency also heads into a downward spiral. It seems as though anyone wanting to do business in Syria, or with Syria, is subject to so many constraints that the fear of destitution may overshadow the emptiness of exile.

On a brighter note, it appears that Jordan may have obtained a golden exception to the suffocating embargo. For the first time since 2011, Jordan and Syria have opened their border crossings to trade, and Royal Jordanian is resuming direct flights to Damascus. Despite previous political problems, a trade relationship with Syria is essential to Jordan. The elimination of this key trading partner was a heavy blow to Jordan’s prosperity. Iraq’s instability makes it difficult to trade with, while the Jordanian public is vehemently opposed to trade with Israel, a country that, among other gross violations of basic decency, restricts Jordan’s access to the West Bank. The northern cities of Jordan that once relied on Syrian trade have experienced great hardship due to this situation, but may finally get a much needed restart.

Still, Syrians may be hesitant to return for political and/or safety reasons, or may have established themselves so well in Jordan that they do not want to leave a decade of hard work behind. Furthermore, we look at history, and find that it is very rare for refugees who have left for extended periods of time to go back to their homelands. The Irish did not go back to their island after the famine, European Jews who went to the Americas remain there, long after the end of the Holocaust, and a large Balkan diaspora still exists as a result of the Yugoslav Wars. Syria’s situation makes it especially unlikely that a mass repatriation of refugees will occur, despite the desires of host countries and the refugees themselves. It is not all doom and gloom though. To take a recent and proximate example, many Maronite Christians fled the Mount Lebanon region for Beirut as a result of the intense sectarian fighting of Lebanon’s civil war. Many thought of their change in residence as a brief predicament, and expressed intent to go back to their home region. As it happened, Lebanon’s turbulent civil war lasted 15 years, and by the time all the warring factions made peace in 1990, all these families had their entire livelihoods located in Beirut.

As it became safer to travel across the country, these families began investing in their home area’s reconstruction and paying regular visits, which caused a grand improvement in the living situation of those in Mount Lebanon. The same can occur in Syria. Syrians in Jordan may be able to use their economic strength in order to reinvest in their hometowns and facilitate trade between the two brother countries, benefiting two countries in desperate need of more diversity in trade. Even if the circumstances make the return of Syrians to Syria unlikely, the rekindling of the Jordanian-Syrian relationship can allow some patching of wounds and a slow step in ensuring Syria return to its former place as a key country in the region.

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