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Summary

Jordan’s current refugee population is estimated to be 1.1 million, including Syrians, Iraqis, and others.  While its Constitution provides protection against extradition for political asylum seekers, Jordan has not enacted domestic legislation to deal with refugees and is not a party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol.  The legal instrument that provides the legal framework for the treatment of refugees is a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding signed between Jordan and the UNHCR.

I.  General Background

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan would reach a total of 1.1 million by December 2015, including 57,140 Iraqis and 937,830 Syrians, based on trends and registration data from early 2014.[1] Despite its scarce resources, Jordan is considered a welcoming country and has provided refugees with health, security, and educational services, and offered the land on which the two Syrian refugee camps of Azraq and Zaatari were built.[2]  However, Jordan lacks a clear legal framework to deal with refugees and asylum seekers.

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II.  Constitutional Provisions

Article 21(1) of the Jordanian Constitution provides that “[p]olitical refugees shall not be extradited on account of their political beliefs or for their defense of liberty.”[3]  However, it does not appear that Jordan has enacted any legislation that regulates the status of refugees, including those who seek asylum for political reasons. 

Furthermore, Jordan is not a signatory and has not become a party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (1951 Convention) or its 1967 Protocol.[4]

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III.  Domestic Legislation

In the absence of special legislation addressing their status, refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan are subject to Law No. 24 of 1973 concerning Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs.[5]   This Law applies to all foreigners without distinction between refugees and nonrefugees.  Article 2 defines a foreigner as anyone who does not have Jordanian nationality.  The Law refers to refugees in some of its articles but does not define them as a separate category.  For example, article 4 refers to a travel permit issued to a refugee by the country of his residence as valid documentation allowing him to enter Jordan.  Of particular interest is article 10, which gives the Minister of Interior the authority, based on the recommendation of the general security director, to issue regulations concerning the travel documentation that Jordan may grant to refugees within its borders, despite there not being any regulations addressing the conditions under which those refugees can be admitted into the country.

A 2015 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) confirms the lack of adequate legal protection for refugees in Jordan, stating as follows:

Jordanian law makes limited references to asylum seekers and refugees.  Despite having the highest ratio of refugees to citizens in the world, Jordan has not signed the Refugee Convention of 1951 or its subsequent 1967 Protocol.  Several concerns are usually cited over Jordan’s non-signatory status, including the politically and socially complex—and yet unresolved—Palestinian refugee issue, popular sentiment against refugee integration, lack of resources and capacity to provide for refugees, and misinformation about the perceived social and economic burden of refugees and related questions of national security. 

. . .

In practice, Jordan avoids the official recognition of refugees under its domestic laws and prefers to refer to Syrian refugees as ‘visitors’, ‘irregular guests’, ‘Arab brothers’ or simply ‘guests’, which has no legal meaning under domestic laws, and was the same for Iraqi refugees under the MOU.  This was further confirmed in an interview with the MOL [Ministry of Labour], Labour Inspection department.[6]

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IV.  Memorandum of Understanding Between Jordan and the UNHCR

In 1998, Jordan and the UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to allow the UNHCR to act within its mandate to provide international protection to persons falling within its mandate.  This MOU has become the legal framework under which refugees are treated and processed in Jordan.[7]

The MOU provides that Jordan accepts the definition of “refugee” contained in the 1951 Convention.[8]  Jordan also agrees to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, meaning that no person seeking asylum in Jordan will be returned to a county where his or her life or freedom could be threatened because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.[9] Jordan also agrees that asylum seekers and refugees should receive treatment according to internationally accepted standards.[10]

Under the MOU, a refugee is granted legal status and the UNHCR will endeavor to find the refugee a durable solution, be it voluntary repatriation to the country of origin or resettlement in a third country.  The stay of the refugee in Jordan should not exceed six months.[11] 

Jordan and the UNHCR also agreed to respect the following rights and privileges of refugees and asylum seekers: (1) freedom to practice their religion and provide religious education to their children, and freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, or nationality, provided that religious rights are not contrary to laws, regulations, and public decency;[12](2) free access to courts of law with the same right of litigation and legal assistance as is accorded Jordanian nationals, wherever possible;[13]and (3) exemption from overstay fines and departure fees.[14]

The UNHCR is allowed to interview asylum seekers who enter Jordan illegally and is to make its determination as to their status within seven days.  In exceptional cases where another procedure is needed the determination period should not exceed one month.[15]

An article published in the Jordan Times refers to a 2014 amendment of the MOU.  It reports that the amendment extended the time for UNHCR to process refugee applications from “between 21 and 30 days” to ninety days and extended “the validity of a refugee identification card to one year instead of six months.”[16] According to a 2015 report by the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the 2014 amendment has not been made publicly available.[17]

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V.  Jordan’s Policies Towards Refugees

In the absence of a legal framework to deal with refugees, the Jordanian policies in this respect are unclear.  The UNHCR asserts that Jordan provides asylum for many Syrians, Iraqis, and others, recognizes them as refugees, and has granted Syrian refugees in host communities access to health, education, and other services.[18]  As previously mentioned, the ILO report relies on a confirmation by a Jordanian government official to assert that Jordan avoids recognizing Syrians as refugees.[19]  The report also states that “Syrians entering the country as asylum seekers or who are registered as refugees with UNHCR are not given residency,”[20]while the UNHCR asserts that “Syrian nationals require neither a visa to enter nor a residence permit to remain in Jordan.”[21] A 2015 report by the European University Institute states that Jordan restricted the movement of Syrian refugees and instructed the UNHCR to stop issuing Asylum Seeker Certificates (ASCs), which are “indispensable for obtaining Ministry of Interior (MoI) Service Card for refugees’ access to public health care and education services in host communities.”[22]

The ILO report states that Jordan hosts over two million Palestinian refugees, “the largest number of Palestinian refugees of any one country in the world.”[23]   However, most of these Palestinians have obtained full Jordanian citizenship, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).[24]

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Prepared by Issam Saliba
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
March 2016


[1] 2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Jordan, UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486566.html (last visited Jan. 6, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/Q3LQ-7NNA.

[2] Id.

[3] Constitution of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as amended, http://www.parliament.jo/node/137 (in Arabic), archived at https://perma.cc/4D2K-CYDL.

[4] See UNHCR, Submission by the UNHCR for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report – Universal Periodic Review: Jordan 1 (Mar. 2013), available at http://www.refworld. org/pdfid/513d90172.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/7GE7-28JB.

[5] Law No. 24 of 1973 concerning Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs, available at http://www.e-lawyerassistance.com/LegislationsPDF/jordan/residencylawAr.pdf (in Arabic; last visited Jan. 6, 2016), archived athttps://perma.cc/RGH6-KPBH.  

[6] International Labour Organization, Access to Work for Syrian Refugees in Jordan: A Discussion Paper on Labour and Refugee Laws and Polices 11–12 (2015), https://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=8919, archived at https://perma.cc/QKT3-GCU2.

[7] Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of Jordan and UNHCR (Apr. 5, 1998), available at http://mawgeng.a.m.f.unblog.fr/files/2009/02/moujordan.doc, archived at https://perma.cc/N28J-MV22t.

[8] Id. art. 1.

[9] Id. art. 2.

[10]Id. art. 5.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. art. 6.

[13] Id. art. 7.

[14] Id. art. 10.

[15] Id. art. 3.

[16] Khetam Malkawi, Gov’t, UNHCR Sign Amendments to Cooperation Memo, Jordan Times (Mar. 31, 2014), http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/gov%E2%80%99t-unhcr-sign-amendments-cooperation-memo, archived at https://perma.cc/3VRX-NFGH.

[17] IHRC & NRC, Registering Rights: Syrian Refugees and the Documentation of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Jordan 36 (Oct. 2014), http://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9208964.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/Q8A5-GEJA.

[18] 2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Jordan, supra note 1.

[19] International Labour Organization, supra note 6.

[20] Id.

[21] UNHCR, Submission by the UNHCR for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report – Universal Periodic Review: Jordan 2, supra note 4.

[22] European University Institute (EUI), Syrian Refugees in Jordan: A Reality Check  (Feb. 2015), http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/34904/MPC_2015-02_PB.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, archived at https://perma.cc/9NCQ-4TKB.

[23] International Labour Organization, supra note 6.