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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

Chapter five - Territory and Nation Building (from 1918 onwards)

Composition of the population

Françoise De Bel-Air

Texte intégral

1As in the past, Jordan remains a regional and international migratory crossroads. In the late 2000s, it had about 6 million inhabitants, 6.3 million in 2012. This population is mostly urban (82% in 2004) and in majority Arab. Among the non-Arab minorities, there are Armenians: descendants of the first wave of survivors of the 1915 genocide from Anatolia, refugees who fled the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem after the Six Day War or more recent immigrants from ex-Soviet Armenia. This community is mainly settled in the capital (although it has gradually abandoned the district of Ashrafiyya, where many of its members resided) and to a lesser extent in Irbid, Aqaba, Madaba and Zarqa. Armenians make up less than 1% of the total population. Originally from the Caucasus, the Circassians, Chechens and other non-Arab Muslim minorities are officially estimated at between 20,000 and 80,000 people. According to the 1994 census they make up “about 1.3% of the population”, i.e. 54,000 people. The Circassians, originally a mosaic of peoples with diverse languages and socio-political organizations gathered under the term Adyge, or “men”, were driven from the northwest Caucasus by Russia in the late nineteenth century towards the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which allocated them land. They were the first settlers on the fringes of the Empire, and remain concentrated in Amman, in its west and southwest suburbs (Na‘ur, Wadi al-Sir, Sweileh) and in the region of Jerash. Zarqa and its surroundings (especially the oasis of Sukhna) are home to the oldest Chechen communities.

2The Jordanian population is predominantly Muslim, Christians of various faiths represented “less than 4% of the population”1 in the mid-1990s. It is also likely that the proportion of Christians in the population is gradually decreasing because of the higher level of emigration and the lower fertility rates of this subpopulation, which are noted (but undocumented) in Jordan, as in other countries in the region. There is a small Druze community settled in the north-east of the country (in the Azraq region) and there are some Baha’is.

3Almost all Jordanians are Sunni, although a Shiite community, composed mainly of Iraqi immigrants, of whom 17 to 26% are Shiites, is gradually growing in the region of Amman-Zarqa (respectively Fafo 2007 and UNHCR 2007).

4There are now few nomadic Bedouins in the steppes of the south and east of the kingdom, where many policies were pursued in the late 1990s to settle them. A survey conducted in the Badiya (the semi-desert region in the north east of Jordan, Mafraq Governorate) estimated them to make up 5-10% of the population of this area (​people.htm).

5Finally, after the settling of merchants, bureaucrats, artisans and soldiers from Syria, from the Hijaz and, mainly, from Palestine caused by the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, regional crises attracted Palestinian refugees to Jordan in 1948, the displaced population from the West Bank in 1967 and the returnees from the Gulf War in 1990-91. The 300,000 or so workers originally from Palestine, driven mainly from Kuwait in retaliation for the support shown by the PLO and King Hussein during the invasion of the emirate by Iraq, are also holders of Jordanian nationality. Refugees from the war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and from Iraq after the Gulf War also found refuge in the kingdom. Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000, the Syrian-Lebanese crisis and the assassination of Rafik Hariri have driven into Jordan new waves of nationals from the territories administered by the PNA and Syria, who are not necessarily permanent residents in Jordan. Finally, from March 2003, the second Gulf War, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the sectarian violence that followed it generated a mass exodus of Iraqis to Jordan.

6These “forced” migrants increased the (so-called) “working” migrant communities, who are mostly Arabs but also Asians.

Table V.5 – Various estimates of subpopulations present in Jordan in the late 2000.



1948 Refugees,

1967 displaced,

1991 returnees and their descendants



Other Arabs


45% of the total population in the late 1990s («official» estimate FAFO / DoS survey)

150,000 refugees from Gaza (holders of Egyptian passes)

20,000 – 200,000 West Bank Palestinians who fled the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000-2001 (holders of limited period Jordanian passports).

450,000 («official» estimate FAFO / DoS survey mid-2007)

230,453 (holders of work permits, Register of Statistics of the Ministry of Labour, 2007)

Approximately 800,000 workers (unofficial estimate, Keraki 2006)

58,146 (total Asian population, Census 2004)

82,572 (holders of work permits, Register of Statistics of the Ministry of Labour, 2007)

320,000 (workers, unofficial estimate, Keraki 2006)

7As previously mentioned, the refugees and displaced populations from the West Bank hold Jordanian nationality, and any direct or indirect estimation of their numbers is treated as a breach of national unity but also a stigmatization of the population. Therefore, this figure, published in a widely publicized report in Jordan, is primarily a political construction, even though it is only slightly lower than estimates obtained by extrapolating the number of refugees in 1948, displaced persons in 1967-70 and returnees in 1990-92. The figure is under 50%, and calms the fears of Transjordanian nationalists while rejecting the transfer theory dear to the Israeli right-wing. However, it is high enough to curb the ambitions of the nationalists and to justify Jordanian intervention in the negotiations on the final status of refugees and displaced persons.

8Similarly, the reliability of the estimated number of Iraqis, generally illegal residents in Jordan, may also be questioned. The revised figure of 750,000 Iraqis claimed by international parties at the beginning of the refugee “crisis” is based on a dubious methodology; in the absence of a reliable registry of Iraqis’ entries and especially their exits from the country, but also a lack of knowledge of the number of Iraqis who arrived before 2003. The figure may be overestimated, and is high enough to justify substantial foreign aid.

9The other major Arab and non Arab communities are greatly underestimated in the census. Besides general distrust towards the statistical registration of foreigners, who are sometimes illegal workers and sometimes passing travellers, it probably also reflects the desire to match figures with public policies: the restriction of the number of foreigners on the labour market but also limiting the possibilities of their permanent settlement. Their families have little or no statistical existence, and therefore little social and political existence, in Jordan.

Emigration of Jordanians

10The number of Jordanians working abroad is estimated at between 260,000 (around 600,000 with their families according to the Department of Statistics in early 2008). The majority of expatriates are resident in the oil producing Gulf countries: mainly Saudi Arabia (260,000), but also the United Arab Emirates (250,000), Kuwait (42,000) and Qatar (27,000) (estimates of Jordanians working in the Gulf in early 2009, Jordanian press). Thus the Gulf region is home to about one tenth of the population of the kingdom, counting workers and their families.

11From 1973 to the mid-1980s, this region, especially Kuwait, remained the favoured destination for Jordanian workers. However, they have gradually been replaced by Asian workers. The first Gulf War closed these employment areas off to Jordanians, who during the 1990s then turned to North America (mainly the United States and Canada). September 11, 2001, marked a turning point with the tightening of immigration policies in the West. At the same time, however, the Gulf markets re-opened to Jordanian professionals. A sharp rise in oil prices, which boosted huge investment projects in the region, led to a strong demand for skilled labour. A political closening of ties between Jordan and the governments of the Gulf countries, the ratification of sectoral bilateral agreements and the establishment of administrative measures promoting the employment of Jordanian nationals in these countries (the opening of recruiting offices in Jordanian embassies abroad) as well as the continuing policy of acceptance of emigration, provided job opportunities for Jordanian technicians and experts outside the kingdom, where economic reform measures resulted in underemployment and wage stagnation. In the Gulf, Jordanians are present in sectors such as engineering, medical and pharmaceuticals, media and information technology, education and research, banking and finance.

Foreign Workers

12Jordan is a country with a high level of emigration, but since the 1970s, it is also a country with a high level of immigration. The large-scale exodus of skilled Jordanian workers to the Gulf from 1973-75 allowed their posts to be filled by nationals previously confined to less skilled jobs (the job-ladder effect). Foreign labour has therefore been attracted to these growing sectors (construction, agriculture etc.). Meanwhile, the rising incomes of the families of expatriates stimulated a growing demand for services. Domestic staff, previously restricted to wealthy families, has become widespread; the poor residents of Palestinian camps and people from the Jordan Valley have been replaced by Asian servants. Since the mass return of expatriates due to the Gulf War, the fight against unemployment of citizens has become a national priority. However, the proportion of legal foreign workers (i.e., with permits issued by the Ministry of Labour) has increased steadily since 2002 (fig. V.19). This trend reflects not only the continued use of this workforce despite the announced policies of replacement of foreigners with nationals without work, but also tougher measures against illegal employment of foreigners since 2006, which paradoxically, has led to regularizations in economic sectors rejected by nationals (eg. manufacturing).

Figure V.19 — The increase in the Legal Workers number by sex between 2001 and 2009.

Figure V.19 — The increase in the Legal Workers number by sex between 2001 and 2009.

13In 2007, the number of holders of work permits (313,962) was still less than the actual number of foreign workers. Estimates, which are unofficial but published in state media, estimate the total number of foreign workers in the kingdom in 2006 to be 900,000 3. Apart from workers who remain in the country after the expiry of their work permits and residence visas, a growing proportion of the half a million Iraqi refugees in the kingdom, faced with the rapid depletion of their means of existence, has no choice but to join the illegal labour market, thus escaping statistical records.

14Figure V.20 shows the main sectors of employment of foreign workers registered with the Jordanian Ministry of Labour. In manufacturing (assembly, textiles etc.), the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) employ 36,807 foreign workers, about half of all workers in the sector. These men and women are mainly Asian (Sri Lankan, Indian, Bengali, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.).

Figure V.20 — Legal Migrant Workers per nationality and sector activity in 2009.

Figure V.20 — Legal Migrant Workers per nationality and sector activity in 2009.

15The women, mostly employed in domestic work (85% of migrants holding work permits) are also almost exclusively from South Asia and South East Asia (the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka). Many of them are employed illegally. Approximately 73% of workers are Arabs: 222,716 in 2007, making up 84% of the men and 71% of the total legal foreign workforce, Egyptians are the most numerous. Their actual numbers are still underestimated.

16Largely marginalized in Jordanian society, foreign workers and, more particularly, servants, who are extremely vulnerable, have recently been protected by measures imposed by international institutions for the protection of workers and human rights. Since 2008, the sectors of domestic work and agriculture are covered by the Jordanian Labour Law from which they were previously excluded. After the outbreak of a scandal involving abuse of workers in QIZs, control of working conditions is slowly improving. The representation of foreign workers within trade unions is currently under discussion in Parliament.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure V.19 — The increase in the Legal Workers number by sex between 2001 and 2009.
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Figure V.20 — Legal Migrant Workers per nationality and sector activity in 2009.
Fichier image/jpeg, 49k

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013

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