Jordan’s official refugee camps, where roughly 20 percent of Jordan’s 671,000 registered Syrian refugees live, have served as testing grounds for policing models since 2012.1 While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Emirati Red Crescent run camp administration, the Syrian Refugees Affairs Directorate (SRAD)—part of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate (PSD)—has always overseen security. The darak (gendarmerie) man the perimeters, while inside the main gates, police stations house representatives from Criminal Investigations, Family Protection, and Juvenile Police. Criminal matters are referred to the Mafraq and Zarqa police stations, but disputes are taken to various stakeholders in the camps’ security.

When the Zaatari refugee camp opened in 2012, police interaction with residents was minimal. Police and gendarmerie dealt with riots, but otherwise kept out of day-to-day camp affairs and rarely patrolled the streets. In the camp’s residential districts, which correspond roughly to areas in Syria from which residents hail, a collection of street leaders emerged, primarily by self-appointment. They became principal points of contact for aid agencies and police alike.

In late 2013, the U.S. Embassy funded a pilot project to enable camp refugees to preserve their own security. Zaatari’s Neighborhood Watch Program aimed to recruit, vet, and train 600 Syrians to police their own neighborhoods in coordination with Jordanian police. Despite an initial bout of training, the program was quickly shelved as the potential for corruption and vigilantism became apparent and Syrians voiced hostility toward fellow refugees acting as “spies” for the PSD.

Parallel to the U.S. project, a U.K.-backed pilot program took shape in December 2013. The British company SIREN Associates was contracted to train a batch Jordanian police as community police officers. Espousing the principles of visibility, approachability, and accessibility, SIREN trained a pilot group of twelve officers to engage with residents’ ongoing concerns while patrolling Zaatari’s streets. Despite recruits’ initial fears that angry residents would attack them, the program’s low-key approach coupled by the willingness of the community police to work with street leaders, imams, and aid agencies appeared to gain them progressively more approval.2 While NGO staff generally left the camp after 4:00 in the evening, the community police were always present.

The community police became resources for solving myriad problems from medical emergencies to water and sanitation issues, to family and neighborhood disputes. One former Jordanian community police officer recalled how she had secured positions for several widows at relief agencies as part of the money-for-work initiative. “Traditional policing is about transactions,” said a SIREN trainer; “community policing is about relations.”3 In total, 90 community police officers were trained to work in Zaatari and Azraq, which opened in 2014.

In 2015, the United Kingdom funded another camp-based initiative to recruit former Jordanian police officers as Community Police Assistants (CPAs). Over 800 retired officers applied for 44 initial vacancies, and the program eventually trained 83 CPAs. The retired officers brought extensive experience from other PSD departments, with most having served in the tourist or traffic police, Family Protection Department, and/or on UN missions abroad. CPAs solved police manpower shortages, but not everyone approved. One retired senior PSD officer criticized employing retired officers in what he described as guard positions. Emphasizing the importance of sovereign Jordanian control over security across the kingdom, he added that employing retirees amounted to privatizing policing.4

The police assistant project ended in late 2016, but broadly speaking, the U.K. initiative was hailed a success. SIREN left the camps at the end of 2017, leaving SRAD to run the show singlehandedly. Since then, British trainers have turned their attentions toward policing Jordanian host communities in northern Jordan, aiming to instill the same principles of accessible policing to the PSD’s local police stations. They face formidable challenges.

Major-General Fadel al-Hmoud, Jordan’s current police chief and former head of the Family Protection Department, has highlighted community policing as a PSD priority, and police trainers are taking inspiration from the model developed in the camps to improve police engagement with the general public. But tensions are high in urban communities where refugees and the local population compete over jobs, education, and resources, and most urban refugees are keen to avoid the police wherever possible.5 The PSD can help change that state of affairs, but only by evolving.

In the confines of the camps, where serious crimes are rare, it is easier for the police to cultivate trust with refugees than in an urban context. In the northern governorates of Amman, Mafraq, Irbid, and Zarqa where over 85 percent of Syrian refugees are concentrated, the ability of the police to act as intermediaries in disputes involving refugees is undermined by their role as law enforcers. Possibly the majority of refugees are at odds with the law: whether because they have not registered with the UNHCR and local police, have not registered in the correct district, are working without work permits, or are sending their children to beg instead of to school.

Legal irregularities make refugees vulnerable to illegal exploitation and abuse. An amnesty instituted by the government in March 2018 enabling around 30,000 unregistered urban refugees to register without penalty has reduced fear of the authorities, as has an increase in working permits available to Syrians.6 But fears that the police forcibly relocate or deport “illegal” refugees are often justified, and surveys suggest that few are confident to seek police protection. Most first seek out the UNHCR and its partner agencies for assistance. Domestic abuse cases, for instance, which are prevalent within the refugee community, are rarely taken directly to the PSD’s Family Protection Department where they are supposed to be managed. Victims seldom seek legal action against abusers and are more likely to approach women’s NGOs for advice and support.

Recognizing the limitations of formal dispute resolution channels, several NGOs in northern Jordan focus on engaging both Jordanian and Syrian parties to reduce community tensions. One such program by Mercy Corps, for instance, combines funding for local infrastructure projects with interest-based conflict resolution training to community leaders, who include municipal council members and tribal elders but also housewives and young activists. And participants in focus groups in Mafraq town, even those in official positions, indicated that going to the police was a last resort that would inevitably magnify the problem.

For years, Jordan boasted low crime rates, crediting “preventative measures designed to reduce crime and provide education and alternative activities for teenagers.” Now, with economic pressures created by a rapidly expanding population, as well as changes to the penal code and increasing social diversity, crime is rising, although under-reporting makes it difficult to judge how much.

In this context, enhancing community engagement is harder but more crucial than ever for the police. With U.K. and Dutch funding, British police trainers are currently training members of the PSD’s Community Policing Department with modules covering cultural awareness, gender sensibility, managing community meetings, and de-escalation of conflict. But the concept of police as a citizen-oriented service is still new. Until 1956, the police were attached to the military, and it shows. The rank system copies the army’s, and the majority of PSD police chiefs are appointed from the military. The systematically rapid turnover of senior officers makes securing top-down support for new initiatives tortuous. Moreover, by admission of several former PSD officers, the organization is inexperienced in cooperating with other organizations whose services intersect with its own.

Conversely, the police are accustomed to working alongside tribal figures to diffuse tensions. The large majority of the police, like the military, hail from East Bank “tribal” backgrounds, with few Palestinian Jordanians achieving high ranks within the PSD despite the fact that they comprise up to 65 percent of Jordanian citizens. At local police stations, familiarity with tribal processes for resolving disputes has partly institutionalized these processes, for example with police officers witnessing tribal truces. Much of the Syrian refugee population hails from rural Deraa, Homs, and Aleppo, and are also familiar with tribal solutions to grievances ranging from verbal disputes to injuries and fatalities caused by traffic incidents. But social capital always plays a role in the negotiated outcomes of tribal settlements, and this is something refugees lack.

For most police and many Jordanians, liaising with influential tribal figures is the central component of community policing. Whether or not this practice encourages egalitarian solutions to disputes, it is unlikely to be dislodged any time soon. But increasingly, community-based organizations, NGOs, and civil society activists are also claiming central roles in mediating disputes between East Bankers, Palestinian Jordanians, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and foreigners. If the Jordanian police are to play a role in enhancing social cohesion, they need to connect and cooperate with both new and conventional tribal and administrative figures in dispute resolution. Doing so does requires enhanced knowledge, but more fundamentally it requires a shift in the organizational culture away from the patriarchal norms that still characterize the PSD.

Jessica Watkins is a research officer in the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

1. Jordanian government sources say that the actual number of Syrian refugees is 1.3 million.
2. Author interview with Stephen Boddy, a team leader for SIREN Associates, Amman, September 30, 2018.
3. Interview with SIREN trainer, Amman, October 2, 2018.
4. Interview with Omar Rafie, Amman, October 1, 2018.
5. Interview with Tamara Al Abadi, London, October 9, 2018.
6. Interview with Rana Nassar, Amman, October 1, 2018.