Syrian refugees fleeing across the border to Jordan are creating an economic burden that could threaten the kingdom’s economic reforms, Jordan’s foreign minister and planning minister said.
About 250,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan over the past 19 months of civil war, imposing a $600 million cost that is straining health, education, energy and water systems, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said in a Dec. 3 Bloomberg Government interview in Washington. The conflict has indirect economic effects as well, scaring away tourists and cutting off transportation routes for the nation’s agricultural exports, he said.
While Jordan is committed to welcoming those fleeing the Syrian violence, it needs more financial help from the U.S. and other countries to meet the costs, the ministers said. Jordan’s economic strains not only increase the challenge of meeting International Monetary Fund loan requirements, the ministers said, they could also endanger political reform meant to stave off unrest sweeping the rest of the region.
“No political reform can be sustained, no political reform can actually be lasting if the economic reforms are not enabled,” Jordanian Minister of Planning Jafar Hassan said in the interview.
Hassan estimated that accommodating the current flow of fleeing Syrians will require $300 million over the next six months. “It makes it much, much harder to move forward with the economic reform program while these externalities continue imposing themselves on our fiscal situation,” he said.
Jordan’s influx of refugees is taking place against the backdrop of regional protest movements that have raised public expectations, Hassan said. In the atmosphere of the Arab Spring, governments “have to deliver much faster and much more than previous governments did,” the planning minister said.
The kingdom has moved to get ahead of demands for change by instituting political reforms, including revising the constitution and tackling election practices to address public cynicism about a system critics have said is rigged to favor certain groups. In Jordan’s parliamentary system, the lower house is elected, while King Abdullah appoints the upper house. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Jan. 23, Judeh said.
The kingdom is now the biggest recipient of refugees among the five countries bordering Syria, Hassan said. If flows continue as they are, with the cost of housing a refugee at $2,000 a person, the refugees entering the country could cost Jordan almost $1 billion over 2012 and 2013, he said.
The quarter-million refugees that have entered Jordan are drawn, in part, by historical ties between communities and families in Syria and Jordan, Judeh said. The majority have migrated to cities, with only 40,000 to 50,000 in camps. There are reports of Jordanians losing their jobs to the newcomers, who are willing to work for lower pay, Judeh said.
The U.S. gave Jordan $100 million in aid in July to help the kingdom host the refugees. Last month, members of the Jordan caucus in Congress supported Jordan’s request to the State Department for $200 million in additional support, Hassan said.
The debt-ridden country is also energy-dependent, with few water resources. It is working with the IMF on a $2 billion economic reform program that has required fuel-cost increases that have triggered public protests.
“For the short term, there is this risk that not being able to deliver economically will really derail the entire political process that has been a major advance,” Hassan said.
The IMF reform program doesn’t provide “for eventualities or possibilities or crises in the region,” Hassan said. “It doesn’t factor in refugees.” As a result, he said, “it adds much more challenges in terms of delivering on the program” the IMF has laid out for Jordan.
The four industries most seriously affected by the refugee crisis are health, education, energy and water, Judeh said. The country is fourth in the world in terms of water scarcity and imports 96 percent of its energy. While the education system is good, it’s “hardly able to accommodate our own schoolchildren” before 15,000 to 17,000 Syrian children enrolled in the last school year, Judeh said.
As Jordan’s social systems face such unprecedented strain, the kingdom’s allies have to understand the risk of economically driven unrest threatening political reform, Hassan said. This lesson, he said, is one that applies to all Arab countries in transition.
The international community can help by “providing that liquidity, providing that financial safety, providing that short-term security for the economic systems and fiscal systems in place so that they could get through this very risky period without really failing,” Hassan said.
More than 41,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.