Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are around three million Palestinians in Jordan. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has registered 2.2 million Palestinians, though the total number is thought to be higher. Palestinians in Jordan are located overwhelmingly in the north-western part of the country, principally in the environs of Amman, Zarqa and Irbid.
A portion of the Palestinian population found themselves in Transjordan in 1946, when the country annexed part of Palestine. The vast majority are of 1948 refugee origin, and Palestinians’ attitudes toward Jordan have been ambivalent from the outset, since, although Jordan defended the West Bank in 1948, the country’s government had also already reached a secret understanding with leaders of the Zionist movement on incorporation of this area.
Following the loss of the West Bank in 1967 (and the influx of another 300,000 displaced, most of whom were already refugees), Palestinians flocked to the guerrilla fedayeen movement. In 1970, fearing the collapse of his authority, King Hussein sent his troops against strongholds of the Syrian-backed guerrilla organization, principally in Amman and Irbid. Palestinians were ruthlessly suppressed and suspected militants expelled. It has left a permanent scar on relations.
In 1974 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was recognized as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and Hussein immediately reduced Palestinian participation in the administration of the state. Pressure on Palestinians to choose between two identities has always been a problem, but it intensified during the first intifada (see Palestine) when Jordan relinquished its formal ties with the West Bank in 1988.
Jordan was dependent on remittances from (overwhelmingly Palestinian) migrants in the Gulf, until their 1991 expulsion from Kuwait and some other Gulf States. This led to an influx of over 250,000 returnees and resulted in 30 per cent unemployment.
Citizenship for Palestinians in Jordan is a complicated issue. Although most Palestinians have Jordanian citizenship and many have integrated, Jordan still considers them refugees with a right of return to Palestine. As of 2016, UNRWA recorded that some 2.18 million Palestinians registered as refugees in Jordan. Around 150,000 Palestinians, mostly from Gaza but also those who remained in the West Bank after 1967 and only later came to Jordan, are denied citizenship. The government issues temporary passports to these Palestinians unless they already have travel documents from the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians have been underrepresented in government, and not just due to matters of citizenship. The government, which maintains concerns about political and religious radicalism among Palestinians, designed voting districts for the Chamber of Deputies in the 1993 election law in such a way as to dilute urban and thus Palestinian representation. Despite several changes to the election laws, the apportionment of seats remains skewed in favour of the monarchy’s rural base of (non-Palestinian) supporters.
Since the mid-2000s, the Jordanian government has engaged in a policy of stripping some Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, often on apparently arbitrary grounds. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 2,700 Palestinians had their Jordanian citizenship revoked between 2004 and 2008. Most were not informed that their citizenship would be revoked until after the fact and had few practical avenues through which to appeal the decision.
Although close to half of Jordanian nationals are thought to be of Palestinian origin, Palestinians remain vastly under-represented in government. Discrimination against Palestinians in private and state-sector employment remains common and a quota system limits the number of university admissions for Palestinian youth.
The challenges are even more severe for Palestinians from Gaza and others without Jordanian nationality, who are effectively stateless. Children are unable to benefit from free primary and secondary education, and face higher costs and competition for the limited university spaces available to non-nationals. Non-Jordanians are also disadvantaged in the labour market and cannot enter professions such as law and engineering, since membership in professional associations requires Jordanian citizenship. Without citizenship, Palestinians also face problems buying and selling property, opening a bank account and completing other daily tasks. Gazans are three times more likely to be living under the poverty line compared to other Palestinians in Jordan.
After the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, many Palestinians living in Syria attempted to seek refuge in Jordan. However, the Jordanian government has reportedly applied differential treatment to Palestinians from Syria, at times turning them back at the border while continuing to allow entry to Syrian refugees. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour made the government’s stance on this issue clear in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper, in which he stated that Palestinians should remain in Syria ‘until the end of the crisis.’ The Jordanian government in a number of cases has also engaged in refoulement of Palestinian refugees to Syria, in contravention of international law. This included a number of Palestinians holding Jordanian passports, who were stripped of their citizenship before being involuntarily returned to Syria.