The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is no stranger to hosting refugees, including Palestinians who have called Jordan home since 1967, and Iraqis — many from the country’s middle class — who fled to Amman at the height of the Iraq War between 2005 and 2007.
But the Syrian refugees now pouring over the border, including 33,500 Syrians who entered Jordan in the month of April, pose serious economic challenges to the country’s hospitality, says Anmar Al-Hammoud, head of the Higher Advisory Steering Committee for Syrians in Jordan.
As the crisis escalates, bringing the US to offer a new round of aid money Wednesday, King Abdullah has the added pressure of appeasing fatigued Jordanians who know too well the plight of refugees; more than 30 percent of Jordan’s population is Palestinian.
Jordan’s newly elected parliament — the first ever called by King Abdullah in his 14-year reign — has had heated arguments about the refugees. Recently, some parliamentarians proposed closing the border in order to keep fleeing Syrians in a kind of buffer zone on the Syrian side. The proposal was a rebuff to Abdullah, who has said the Syrians must be welcomed.
Women and children make up 75 percent of the refugees and 55 percent are under the age of 18, according to Tala Kattan, assistant external relations officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—Jordan. The major challenges facing Syrian refugees, she added, are “high cost of living [in Jordan], strengthening psycho-social support due to the horrors they have seen, [and] losing two years of schooling for the children.”
The influx is also impacting the Jordanian population, Kattan said. Unemployment in Jordan stands at 12.8 percent in the first quarter of 2013, according to the Jordan Department of Statistics. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees offers shelter, food, education, and healthcare inside the Zaatari refugee camp, located in the northern corner of Jordan by the Syrian border and the largest refugee camp in the country. But the UNHCR program operating outside the camp can only offer cash assistance to the most vulnerable, currently benefiting 10,000 Syrians, explained Kattan.
Poor and desperate, the Syrians are undercutting Jordanian salaries, imposing further tension in northern Jordan particularly.
“Syrian people get less salary, or fees, for their work. Employers prefer Syrians to Jordanians, this causes problems in the community between Syrians and Jordanians,” said Sara Kateib, child protection program officer at the International Rescue Committee.
Despite the growing hostility toward Syrians, Jordan still sees more Syrian immigrants than surrounding countries. As of April 25, UNHCR reported that Jordan has 393,370 refugees from Syria, while Turkey has 291,460 and Lebanon has 350,795.
Dr. Abdul Hadi, 37, is a Syrian refugee who was held by Bashar al-Assad’s regime for 70 days and is currently living in Amman. He said that Jordan is the best place for refugees because in Turkey there is a language barrier, and Lebanon is home to some groups that are close to the Syrian regime.
President Obama’s recent one-day visit to Jordan resulted in a $200 million pledge and on Wednesday Secretary of State John Kerry announced an additional $100 million in humanitarian aid, of which $43 million will go directly to the Jordanian government to help it cope with the crisis.
And with increasing concerns that chemical weapons might have been used in Syria, in mid-April the US Department of Defense deployed a US Army contingent to Jordan to help secure its border with Syria.
Today the Zaatari refugee camp is a sea of white UNHCR tents and has become the centerpiece of scrutiny for refugees’ living conditions. In a weekly report posted Thursday on the UNHCR website, Zaatari community leaders were consulted on the process of moving refugees from tent to caravan accommodation to improve their living conditions.
Sara Kateib of the International Rescue Committee drives into Zaatari on a daily basis and described camp conditions as poor. Since there is no electricity, fire is the only way to heat the tents, which has caused a number of dangerous incidents. The harsh desert conditions are of ongoing concern to aid workers.
Social issues within the camp have become a problem also.
“We have people from gulf countries and some other nationalities ask for young women — this is also an important issue,” Kateib said. “Parents force their daughters to marry for a certain amount of money. They marry a Syrian girl for [about $100], sometimes less than that. It is very obvious,” she said.
In early April, the United Arab Emirates funded a second refugee camp, the Mrajeeb Al Fhood camp near the city of Zarqa in northeastern Jordan. The camp has pre-fabricated housing that is currently able to house up to 5,500 refugees with the possibility to expand up to 25,000, Al-Hammoud of of the Higher Advisory Steering Committee for Syrians in Jordan explained.
“Now it is almost 2,500, but it will be filled soon,” Al-Hammoud said.
The Syrian refugee camps are a stark contrast with the Iraqi refugee population that settled in Jordan. Many arrived with enough money to rent apartments, said Anbara Abu-Ayash, who held the position of human rights officer at UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
“The Iraq refugees did not, in majority, live in organized camps,” said Abu-Ayash. “They immediately settled in the cities, but mainly in Amman. Those who had money were granted a different residence permit that covers one year and that is extendable as long as certain amount of money was left as a guarantee in a Jordanian bank.” The difference is the sheer number of Syrian refugees entering Jordan.
This number is growing every day,” said a senior government official who asked not to be identified. He added that at the 2013 Kuwait Donor’s Conference, the Jordanian government requested $490 million, of which $180 million has been received.
This number was based on 660,000 refugees, Al-Hammoud explained, the equivalent of 11 percent of the Jordanian population. The UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2013 the overall number of Syrian refugees may double. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said that at this rate, by the middle of 2014, 40 percent of the Jordanian population could be Syrian refugees.
“The question of the Syrian crisis is not Jordanian, it is the responsibility of the international community to assist Jordan,” said Al-Hammoud. “We did appeal to the United Nations, the Security Council, but it was unfortunate that it is too much politics.”