The daily lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan have always been difficult, but until the winter of 2014-2015, they were defined more by concern about making ends meet than outright panic.

The relative calm was largely due to humanitarian aid extended to Syrians who live in the cities of Jordan. While sprawling camps have drawn most of the media’s attention, most of the Syrians in Jordan — 80 percent — reside outside the facilities run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This fact is in itself a victory for refugee rights; poverty notwithstanding, a private apartment offers much more dignity than a tent in the desert. The Jordanian government has more or less tolerated Syrians working in the informal economy and, with almost unprecedented generosity, provided Syrians with access to state health care and education services. Aid agencies have provided unrestricted cash grants, rather than pallets of unfamiliar foods purchased from foreign multinationals.

But now two major changes to the framework of policies intended to protect Syrians in urban Jordan have threatened this tenuous stability. First, new Jordanian government policy has tightened restrictions on who is permitted to live outside the camps. Second, the UN’s cash-strapped World Food Program (WFP) made a desperate decision to take cash food vouchers away from some 10 percent of Syrian families living outside the camps, and implemented an across-the-board reduction of close to 50 percent in the value of food vouchers.

These two changes interact to disastrous effect. “We depended on these coupons for food. For life,” said one Syrian about the changes. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t do anything. Life here is impossible.”

Jordan’s Shifting Policy

Starting on July 30, 2012, all Syrians arriving at the Jordanian border without passports were brought to one of two refugee camps, either Zaatari, the vast expanse often described as the fourth-largest city in Jordan, or the newer site at Azraq. Technically, only those who could secure a sponsor from the surrounding Jordanian communities were allowed to leave, through a procedure called a “bailout.” According to sources in Zaatari, this sponsor is required to be a family member, above 35 years old and married; some refugee families have married off their daughters in order to be able to apply for the bailout. It can take Syrians weeks to find a sponsor and complete the paperwork, and it costs between 350 and 600 Jordanian dinars (about $500-1,000) depending on the “generosity” of the would-be sponsor. Alternatively, a medical report can help camp residents earn eligibility for a permit to leave. In any case, the process is lengthy and opaque. It “depends on luck,” according to one refugee in Zaatari.

In theory, the Jordanian sponsor supports the bailed-out Syrians, paying for living expenses and shelter to keep their wards out of the job and housing markets. Our five months of research in Jordan, however, shows that in practice most “sponsors” take a bribe to fill out the required forms and then disappear. Even family and friends who are serving as sponsors rarely fulfill their assigned role as material providers, as they are often struggling to make ends meet themselves. We did not find a single Syrian household in Irbid, for example, that was receiving regular funds from a Jordanian sponsor.

Given these obstacles, and the punishing conditions of camp life, large numbers of Syrians have chosen to leave the camps without official permission. It has always been easy to do so. Smugglers, expert at bringing civilians out of war-torn Syria, found it no challenge to bypass the Jordanian security forces stretched around the perimeter of Zaatari. They could guarantee that a family would arrive in nearby Irbid by the next morning. Once outside, those who left by informal means were treated similarly to those following the formal bailout process. It became such a common practice that many new arrivals were not even aware they were stepping outside the letter of the law. Aid workers and academics hailed the lax enforcement for its magnanimity, but it was undeniable that the mounting numbers of Syrians in and around urban centers in northern Jordan were making jobs and housing scarcer there.

So in July 2014 the Jordanian government made an about-face. Today Syrians without bailout papers or whose sponsors do not properly support them no longer receive identity cards from either UNHCR or the Ministry of Interior. The UNHCR card, which had previously been given to all registered refugees, is the ticket to all humanitarian aid in Jordan; the Ministry card confirms residency in Jordan and affords the holder access to education and health care. Without both of these documents, displaced Syrians have no right to any of this help. Even those who hold Ministry cards are now finding services denied to them. [1]

Reports are emerging as well that Syrians are being turned away when they attempt to renew their identification documents, although it is unclear whether this shift is official policy. Many speak of friends, family and neighbors being sent back to the camps if they were unable to prove the legality of their residency in cities. This prospect is particularly frightening to refugees because the Jordanian government has suspended bailouts from transit facilities, with UN sources and security officials assuming that this policy change will also apply to the refugee camps in the near future. [2] Most troubling of all are the many reports of undocumented refugees being deported to Syria.

Syrians speak of a dramatic increase in random identity checks and workplace raids by police since the introduction of the new regulations. Jordanian sources back the allegations. The result is increased pressure to stay home, leading to a drastic restriction of access to the informal employment that Syrians have come to rely on outside the camps and erosion of social connection and psychological welfare for a large percentage of Syrians. People who were able to build relatively stable lives several months ago are now entirely cut off from all systems of formal support. Fear among Syrians in Irbid is palpable. “They are looking for Syrians from Zaatari,” says one woman. “They are catching them, and deporting them. We can’t go outside…. The rules here are too complicated.” She sighed. “We don’t understand.”

Food Voucher Cuts

In August 2014, whispers among refugees that WFP funds were tight rose to a panicked roar. Until that point, every Syrian refugee in the country had been entitled to 20 dinars worth of food vouchers each month (at the end of 2014, that amount was reduced to 13 dinars, about $4.50 per week per person). The vouchers were akin to pre-paid cash cards, allowing families to purchase certain staples at participating shops equipped with electronic readers. This policy was groundbreaking in both its functionality and its extension of dignity to recipients. Like any humanitarian program based on external funding, however, it was not sustainable, and as global attention to the crisis started to fade, the WFP began to struggle.

Cross-institutional deliberation about how to address the financial shortfalls came too little, too late. As funds dwindled, the WFP was forced to take emergency measures. The result: complete cancellation of food vouchers to households whose heads have a post-secondary education, an indicator developed in what a July 2014 WFP document called a “comprehensive food security monitoring exercise.” This study assessed the “vulnerabilities, food security situations and living conditions of the UNHCR-registered Syrian refugee population in Jordan” as part of a “planned move to a more targeted approach” in distributing food aid. According to the WFP, the main factors underlying food security are marital status, wealth, income and expenses, education level of the head of the household, geographic location, access to water and household debt, as well as the “dependency ratio” — the proportion of the household that is not of working age. Education, dependency ratio and marital status were singled out as “highly correlated with food security.”

Despite the elaborate econometrics, the cuts have nevertheless proven to be poorly targeted. Without legal access to work, Syrians who hold diplomas or advanced degrees have no tangible advantage over others in supporting themselves. To the contrary, our research has found that degree-holding Syrians inside and outside the camps are in fact less likely to find work: Middle-aged engineers and doctors are reluctant to work or have trouble getting hired in the shawarma shops and construction sites of the informal economy. It is the youth — those who have not begun a career — and the day laborers of Syria who do the bulk of this work and hence are better able to support their families. While econometric models may suggest that degree-holding households are more food-secure, many households are falling through the cracks — and have now lost their primary lifeline in Jordan.

Syrians tend not to try too hard to decode the decisions of aid agencies, as agencies usually do not communicate clearly with the refugees and often do not translate their statements from English. The arbitrariness of this latest decision, however, left the community reeling. Rumor is rife: “They cut the voucher to 8,000 — from the poorest people.” “They stopped coupons for 300 families [all] from the same region.” “They will stop 8,000 every month.” “We don’t know why they stopped it for some and not for others. Everyone I know who had it stopped, their situations are bad.” “We think this change is intended to force us all back to Syria.” The lack of transparency adds to the growing suspicions. Even inside the camps, where so far no cuts have been made, there is alarm about the potential for future reductions as well as abundant speculation about why the aid was curtailed at all. Overall, the impression prevails that “Jordanians don’t like Syrians” and that, as a refugee in Zaatari says, “the international community doesn’t care about us.”

Policy Interplay

In isolation, either of these two policy changes would be highly damaging to fragile Syrian livelihoods in Jordan. In concert, the economic and social effects are disastrous.

The first consequence of the interplay between these policies is a sudden and complete collapse of food security. The adjusted Jordanian policy means that many Syrians have been thrown out of work and denied access to services. The WFP food voucher restrictions do not reflect this new reality, as the community has not yet fully adapted to the new regulations and updated data has not yet been collected. Numerous households have abruptly lost all their income, formal and informal, as a result. Stripped of financial resources, these families may somehow recover — or they may be displaced again, either to camps within Jordan, back to Syria, or into dangerous, irregular onward migration to Europe or elsewhere. It is inevitable that remaining households will be forced to turn to the black market as a last resort. The WFP “targeting” exercise does not provide a strategy for dealing with such cases; it just points out the necessity for agencies to work with government counterparts to find “more durable, mid-term solutions to allow refugees to diversify the support received, thus decreasing their dependency on WFP food assistance in the future and increasing self-reliance,” without indicating how this outcome may be achieved. It is not clear at this point how many households are destitute, but with the potential of more WFP cuts on the horizon — only international emergency funds were able to reverse a WFP decision to cut all food aid to refugees outside the camps — the number will most certainly grow.

Second, there are threats to social peace. Some Syrians are convinced that the international community and the Jordanian government are deliberately pushing refugees out of towns and cities. The Jordanian and WFP policy shifts — threats of removal to camps, restriction of access to the informal economy, retraction of food support — are seen as dovetailing too neatly for the combined effects to be coincidental. Has not the Jordanian government made it clear that it would rather host refugees in camps than in town? Is it not easier (and cheaper), from the Jordanian perspective, to control refugees in camps? Do not the camps help to attract international aid by illustrating the magnitude and pressing nature of the refugee crisis? Has not international attention shifted to the threat of infiltration of Syria’s neighbors by the Islamic State and other extremists? Does not this anxiety make officials still more eager to confine refugees to camps? These are the questions discussed among Syrian refugees in Jordan, frantic at the concatenation of deprivation. The fact that refugees received the text message informing them of the voucher cuts shortly before ‘Id al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim holidays, did nothing to alleviate the humiliation and existential fear.

In order to better understand the depth of Syrian feelings of isolation and hopelessness, it is useful to revisit Amartya Sen’s work on human agency. Sen differentiated between “wellbeing” and “agency,” which together define the quality of human life and yield corresponding notions of freedom. He defined human agency as “what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important.” [3] A measure of such freedom, Sen argued in a later book, is a core element of positive social change: “The people have to be seen…as being actively involved…in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.” [4] Another scholar, Albert Bandura, seconds Sen’s point, writing that “people are self-organizing, proactive, self-regulating and self-reflecting. They are not simply onlookers of their behavior. They are contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of them.” [5]

The agency of Syrian refugees needs to be recognized to ensure that aid measures do not wind up becoming a form of structural violence, what Peter Uvin defined as “the constant and humiliating reduction in the physical, intellectual and social life chances of people.” [6] Structural violence, Uvin contends, lays the groundwork for acute physical violence.

The failure of the WFP to consider the interplay between food voucher cuts and the Jordanian policy reversals is no technical glitch, but a dereliction of duty to those the relief agency exists to serve. The constraints of time and funding are no excuse. With their food assistance reduced to a mere quantitative exercise, and with their freedom of movement more and more restricted, the refugees are rejected twice — once as political subjects, and once as human beings.

CORRECTION: The initial version of this article incorrectly said that WFP vouchers have been cancelled for refugees with a secondary education. The aid has only been cut for refugees with a post-secondary education. We regret the error.


[1] Jordan Times, December 1, 2014.
[2] Jordan Times, December 3, 2014.
[3] Amartya Sen, “Wellbeing, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984,” Journal of Philosophy 82/4 (April 1985), p. 203.
[4] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 53.
[5] Albert Bandura, “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1/2 (June 2006), p. 164.
[6] Peter Uvin, “Development Aid and Structural Violence: The Case of Rwanda,” Development 42/3 (August 1999), p. 54.

How to cite this article:

Christiane Fröhlich, Matthew R. Stevens "Trapped in Refuge," Middle East Report Online, March 02, 2015.

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