The Urban Impact: The Security Apparatus & Public Safety

A news channel called “The Kingdom” ran an ad showing a Jordanian soldier in full battle dress uniform and helmet carrying a Syrian refugee baby girl in his arms. It reflects the widespread Jordanian trust and admiration of a King and his security apparatus that are credited with providing relative calm in a chaotic region.

A news channel called “The Kingdom” ran an ad showing a Jordanian soldier in full battle dress uniform and helmet carrying a Syrian refugee baby girl in his arms. It reflects the widespread Jordanian trust and admiration of a King and his security apparatus that are credited with providing relative calm in a chaotic region.


Jordanians’ perspectives

Most Jordanians believe that because of the arrival of Syrian refugees, they are more at risk of armed violence, that crime rates in Jordan have risen, and that Jordan has become a more divided and politically unstable country.[1] Three fourths of Jordanians want a database of all Syrians living in Jordan, and these beliefs were significantly more pervasive in Irbid than in other towns like Mafraq or Ramtha.[2]

And while Irbid does not have the locked-down or paranoid feeling of other heavily secured cities in the Middle East, there are constant reminders you are on the edge of a conflict zone. In October 2015, carried by high winds, two shells landed in Ramtha from a Syrian artillery barrage, only 20km from the city center of Irbid. Army and police officers stroll casually through Irbid’s marketplaces in full fatigues. When tussles break out at night between testosterone-high male shop keepers, the fight is quickly broken up by the blaring horns of armored security vans and all black-uniformed police officers.

“Day to day, with most people, there isn’t any problem, but every once and awhile, something happens, so you feel it,” said one Jordanian resident. When I [Charles] asked for specific examples of insecurity, Jordanians could only recollect rumors of minor incidents like theft or fistfights in Irbid due to Syrians.

Among Jordanians, there is a widespread appreciation and honoring of the Jordanian security apparatus that has expanded its presence in Irbid since 2012. In response to the arrival of Syrians, the Jordanian police began deploying many more plainclothes officers in Syrian-dense neighborhoods. There has been a proliferation of Public Safety offices across Irbid, not aimed explicitly at political violence or even Syrians but tasked with handling anything from theft to disorderly conduct to harassment.

One long-time Jordanian Irbid resident said, “there is mistrust between Syrians and Jordanians.” Pointing at a Syrian apartment building, he said, “I don’t know you [Syrians], you don’t know me [Jordanians], but we’re in the same apartment building, sharing everything.” His viewpoint harkens back to a rural attitude about safety found across Jordan’s Northern Badia. In only recent history before 1946 when Jordan became a state, one’s responsibility for security was less in the hands of any formal police institution and more in the closeness of the community and interpersonal trust. “In the villages, I know everyone, all the kids play together, if something happens, we know who it was,” he said, implying that in this brave new world of Syrian-majority Irbid, this closeness is nonexistent, and therefore, security is gone.

The ruling Hashemites have cultivated a deep trust in the police, as all of the major tribes are represented in the security apparatus. For those with Jordanian citizenship, police and soldiers are seen as guardians. I [Charles] have been in the car with a Jordanian friend who was frequently pulled over for speeding, and he coolly would stop, keep the music blasting, and joke with the officer. Offering his tribal name, they’d laugh, maybe name drop a mutual acquaintance or even laugh at being distant cousins, and then he’d drive off saying something along the lines of, “the police are the friends of the Jordanian people. Not like in America.” Palestinians, Syrians, and other migrants didn’t share this level of comfort. To our knowledge, there are no Syrians working as police or military in Jordan. Without true integration to the security apparatus, they are likely to remain outsiders, relying on security imposed from outside, and from informal safety from neighborhood strongmen.

[1] Based Al Athamneh & Al Momani, 2016

[2] Ibid.

Syrians’ Perspectives

Syrians we asked about safety and security described hearing about issues of theft, including money being stolen. The black market for ID cards, especially passports, may in part have led to an increase in thefts. Syrians feel comfortable going to police for help in some matters, but in disputes against a Jordanian, they anticipate the officer will take the Jordanian’s position over theirs by default. In the early years of arrival—2013-2015—there was also fear of being asked for papers, or to be sent to Za’atari camp, particularly among Syrian students who had no refugee registration but were assumed by police to be refugees.

Having been attacked by the Assad government, many of the Syrians in Irbid crossed the border with a deep skepticism or even fear of central authority. This concern was in some cases cemented by Syrians’ first encounter with Jordanian security while crossing the border: excessive force, harassment, or having things like IDs taken way and not returned were reported by about half of the Syrians I [Charles] spoke with.

This contrasted with Jordanians’ perceptions of border security: “I want you to go there [to the border],” said one Jordanian woman connected with the border security force, “you will see all the hardship they go through.” Indeed, we’ve both heard frequent firsthand stories of Jordanian soldiers carrying dead or injured Syrian children across the border, only to be yelled at or spit on by grieving and emotionally shocked Syrian refugees. Border security and police are often young Jordanian boys dressed up as men with uniforms, just doing their best to help, but stressed by the task of keeping a war zone at bay. They try hard, offering water, words of support, and gestures of welcome, but making new Syrian arrivals feel warm and welcome seems too challenging an expectation.

Still, the different perspectives between Jordanians and Syrians are stark. Jordanian security personnel described the procedure of meeting new arrivals as “entry interviews,” but Syrian refugees I spoke with in Irbid used the word “interrogation.”

When I [Charles] was accompanied by a Jordanian in Irbid, Syrians I spoke with were less likely to respond negatively about experiences with border security compared to when I was alone or accompanied by a Syrian. At the same time, Syrians would sometimes interject that they felt genuine gratitude and express praise for the Jordanian military and police for giving them a secure place to live. They recounted stories of ongoing violence in Syria, and how grateful they are to at least be protected while their friends and family continue to endure airstrikes and sniper fire back in Syria.

Are police or the job market causing security in Irbid?

In addition to the strength of the security system, the general lack of unrest in Irbid as also been attributed to the fact that “commercial activity in Irbid has continued to increase” because of immigration.[1] Security and stability has come as much from effective economic integration as it has from good policing.

[1] Alafi & Alfawaeer, 2014.

The city has been impacted in eight other sectors:

Public spaces, housing, education, jobs and the local economy, the healthcare system, the transportation system, water & waste management, and the impact of the presence of large INGO’s on the city.