Background on Migration to Irbid

 
 
 The modern Irbid skyline with the “Happy Times” amusement park surrounded by small shops, restaurants, apartment buildings, and a mall.

The modern Irbid skyline with the “Happy Times” amusement park surrounded by small shops, restaurants, apartment buildings, and a mall.

 

The historic site of Irbid’s original bronze-age walls are now an unremarkable, weathered mound of rock, overlooking the city’s Palestinian camp, but they are an important reminder that Irbid has been an ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine settlement and has been transformed many times by waves of forced migration over centuries.[1]

 Irbid's original bronze age walls, in the north of the city overlooking what is now a Palestinian "camp.”

Irbid's original bronze age walls, in the north of the city overlooking what is now a Palestinian "camp.”

Until as recently as the 1960s, the majority of Jordanians lived in the reef (countryside), surviving on pastoral, nomadic work.[2] Urbanization in Irbid governorate began rapidly in the 1970s with the founding of Yarmouk University,[3] when families moved as a unit to allow parents to keep the family under one roof even as their children came to the city to study. As the city developed, farmers from across Irbid governorate brought their families to the city seeking new employment in construction or services for the expanding urban population.

The culture of northern Jordan was changed by the city. The growing ubiquity of TVs in the 1980s and the accompanying import of international media spread consumerist culture in that glamorized “modern” urban life.[4] Meanwhile, the Arab Gulf oil boom reduced the cost of operating a car, leading to increased congestion on Irbid’s roads and air pollution.[5] Since the beginning of the urbanization spike in the 1970s, the population of Irbid has doubled, mostly as unplanned growth from simple concrete structures acting as small factories, auto shops, and apartments. To date, there is no master plan for the city, and growth continues without central planning.[6]

Population growth and the sprawl of the urban footprint lead to an inaccessibility of services, so that by the 1990s, low-income Jordanians lived too far away from the urban center to easily access healthcare, banks, police offices, schools, or other services.[7] By 2005, Irbid’s urban infrastructures—roads, water, and waste systems—were being stressed by a city population of 300,000.[8]

The first wave of refugees to Irbid in modern history were Palestinians who arrived in 1949, and then again in 1967. The Palestinian camp in the north of the city is still called a “camp,” but is now functionally just another neighborhood of the city, complete with concrete apartments, internet cafes, shops, and mosques.

 The Palestinian “camp” of Irbid is now just another neighborhood of the city.

The Palestinian “camp” of Irbid is now just another neighborhood of the city.

While there was a small trickle of Iraqi and Sudanese refugees to Irbid in the early 2000s, the second major wave of refugees was the arrival of Syrians beginning in 2012. Some came directly to Irbid from Syria, while others were “secondary migrants,” coming from the Za’atari, Azraq, or the “Gardens” Emirati camp after paying a small 5-20 JD "smuggling" fee out of the camp, and then on buses to Irbid. Most of these secondary arrivals had heard through friends, family, or just rumors that life in Irbid was much better than the camps. Still others are secondary migrants from across the region, having gone initially to countries like Lebanon, but experienced problems with harassment or cost of living, and self-resettled in Irbid after hearing it was easier there for Syrians.

There are several reasons why the Syrians prefer Irbid, the proximity to the home Daraa region usually being the most important. Other factors include the familiar look and feel of Irbid and Ramtha, which is an extension of the Hurran plain of Daraa, as well as the similarity of the customs, traditions, and spoken dialect between the two regions. Further, the provinces of Daraa, Irbid, and Ramtha have a long history of social relations and economic ties, which meant that many Syrians had prior knowledge of the region at the time of departure from Syria.

Today, the exact number of Syrians living in Irbid is not known, as most are unregistered, and even those who are registered usually do not update their address information with UNHCR or the Jordanian government. According to the results of the Jordanian census of 2015,[9] the number of Syrians residing in Irbid was 343,479. By contrast, current UNHCR statistics say that 139,945 Syrians are registered in Irbid,[10] while aid workers we spoke with in Irbid described using the working estimate of around 290,000 to plan budgets for services.

Modern Irbid has a reputation as being quiet and forgettable among Westerners, and backward and country by Jordanians living in Amman. Westerners typically only see Irbid on tourist busses while passing through from Amman on their way to Jerash or other historic sites in the north of the country. They won’t remember this small dusty town where entertainment other than shisha bars and video game cafes all shut down by 8pm. Cosmopolitan Amman residents see Irbid as a place for “rednecks,” or reefee backwards people. “They look down on us,” said one young Jordanian man who grew up in Irbid’s Al Afrah neighborhood. “It’s like racism.”

 Amman’s Boulevard shopping district (above) compared to the simpler look and feel of Irbid (below).

Amman’s Boulevard shopping district (above) compared to the simpler look and feel of Irbid (below).

But to northern Jordanians, Irbid is perceived differently: "People say Irbid is the most beautiful city in Jordan. Amman is the administrative capital, busy, crowded, and Mafraq is like a desert,” said one Jordanian male whose family has lived in Irbid Governorate since before the region had modern state lines drawn. His preference for the quieter streets of Irbid to the bustle of Amman is shared by many of Irbid’s Syrian residents, many of whom first settled in Amman to be close to family, but then moved to Irbid after finding Amman’s cost of living too expensive, and the city too congested and loud.

For these individuals, the small town feel of Irbid balances a preference for open spaces rooted in nomadic, minimalist traditions with a need to be proximate to job opportunities, schools, and affordable housing.


[1] Al-Kheder 2009

[2] Na'amneh & Husban, 2012

[3] Al-Sahili & Aboul-Ella, 1992

[4] Ibid.

[5] Na'amneh & Husban, 2012

[6] Al-Kheder et al. 2009

[7] Al-Sahili & Aboul-Ella, 1992

[8] Al-Kheder et al. 2009

[9] Jordanian Ministry of Interior 2015. Available online at: http://www.ain.jo/%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%AC-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%84

[10] UNHCR Syria. (2018). http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/36