Jordan has 'exceeded its capacity' for refugees, says Foreign Minister

But Ayman Al Safadi says people should not be forced to return home

Syrian refugee children on the  desert outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan, in 2015. AP
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Jordan has “exceeded its capacity” to deal with Syrian refugees, although they should not be forced to return home, Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi said.

It was the first comment by a Jordanian official on refugees since the readmission of Damascus to the Arab League this month.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries pushed to restore ties with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Syrian officials have signalled that reconstruction would have to commence and western sanctions on Damascus would have to be lifted before refugees could return home.

“Jordan has exceeded its capacity to absorb the refugees at a time the kingdom is facing difficult economic conditions,” Mr Al Safadi was quoted as saying in a Foreign Ministry statement after he met UN aid officials in Geneva on Monday.

“Resolving the refugee crisis lays in providing the necessary environment for the voluntary return of the Syrian refugees.”

Mr Al Safadi warned against “the consequences of the retreat in international support for the refugees as well as for the host countries”. He did not give details.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi. Reuters

Jordan's economy has been stagnant for more than a decade and unemployment is 23 per cent, according to official figures. The kingdom depends on western aid, particularly from the US, which is also the main donor for Syrian refugees in the country.

A large proportion of the billions of dollars in aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan in the past 14 years has gone to host communities in Jordan, aid officials in the kingdom say.

Germany, for example, pays for the salaries of Jordanian teachers who give afternoon classes to refugees. Grants pay for infrastructure in Jordanian urban centres and rural areas where refugees live.

But some aid, such as food subsidies for the most impoverished refugees, has decreased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 partly shifted resources to deal with human suffering from that war.

“These services should continue,” Mr Al Safadi said. “The burden of [hosting] refugees is an international responsibility and not just the responsibility of the host countries.”

There are 670,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees figures.

The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, about 80km north of Amman. AFP

Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said “addressing protection concerns” for refugees was needed before “any contemplated returns”.

Mr Pedersen, who was among the UN officials who met Mr Al Safadi in Geneva, said on Twitter that any return of refugees “must be voluntary, safe, informed and carried out with dignity”.

UN data shows that last year 52,000 Syrians returned to the country from Jordan and other countries in the region that host them, mainly Lebanon and Turkey. A large proportion of these refugees went back to areas in northern Syria controlled by rebel groups allied with Ankara.

In 2021, there were 35,800 returnees, with 38,200 in 2020.

Syrians started to flee the country in 2011, after a revolt in March of the same year against President Bashar Al Assad, who has ruled since 2000. Jordan and other Arab countries supported rebels in southern Syria fighting to remove Mr Assad.

But in 2014, Jordan closed its borders in front of the refugees as civil war swept Syria. In 2018, Jordan and other Arab countries abandoned their support for the rebels.

A rapprochement with Damascus started a year later, culminating in Mr Assad's attendance at the Arab League summit in Riyadh last week.

Jordanian officials say a main goal of the detente with Damascus is to secure its help in curbing the smuggling of the amphetamine Captagon into the kingdom.

They blame the Syrian military and pro-Iranian militia in southern Syria for sponsoring the trade, which boomed after they captured most of the area with Russian support in 2018.

Updated: May 23, 2023, 10:34 AM