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Jordan: How Close to Danger?

Joost Hiltermann, The New York Review of Books  |   29 Mar 2016

Poor Jordan. A small, economically precarious country, it shares a two-hundred-mile border with Syria. Yet unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, it rarely gets any attention in the international press. Indeed, while the world focuses on the European Union’s controversial deal with Turkey—in which Ankara has agreed to limit the number of asylum-seekers hoping to reach Greece’s shores in exchange for a lavish foreign aid package from Europe—hardly anything has been said about this crucial American ally on Syria’s southern border. But as I observed on a recent visit, Jordan is struggling to cope with vast numbers of refugees and an alarming rise in extremism. We ignore it at our peril.

On paper, the size of the Syrian influx should have turned Jordan into a basket case. The Hashemite Kingdom has a per capita GDP of just over $5,000, and its official youth unemployment rate is around 30 percent. Though it is about half the size of Oklahoma, it has received perhaps three quarters of a million refugees since the war began—there are some 630,000 registered with the UN, but many more according to the authorities—meaning that Syrians now constitute about a tenth of Jordan’s population of 6.4 million. This is on top of a very large wave of Iraqis who came during the Iraq War a decade ago. How to feed this many, and provide them with potable water? How to school them, and how to employ them, especially when Jordanians themselves have trouble finding work?

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