Syrian refugee crisis mounts for Jordan

Amman appeals for foreign aid to handle massive influx amid increasing social tensions at home. Published in MEED, 6 September 2012

Every night, under the cover of darkness, thousands of refugees are fleeing the violence in Syria and seeking safe haven in an exodus that has now been going on for more than a year. By the end of August, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated there were 228,976 refugees needing assistance in neighbouring countries. Far more have left but are relying on friends, family or their own resources.

The situation is placing Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq under increasing strain. Between them these four countries have taken in the vast majority of those fleeing and the pressure is beginning to tell.

“The refugee exodus is having a significant impact on the society, economy and security of host countries,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Security Council on 30 August. “The large-scale arrival of refugees brings a significant economic cost, leads to complex social consequences and has a serious impact on local infrastructure and the environment.

“By keeping their borders open to refugees in such a complex and challenging environment, the countries that neighbour Syria are providing a very positive example to the world. But their capacities are being severely tested.”

Rising refugee numbers

The situation in Jordan is emblematic of what is happening in the region and the strain that is being placed on authorities. The UNHCR says it has registered some 70,000 refugees in the country, but the actual number of Syrians seeking shelter there is far higher. The government in Amman estimates that some 177,000 Syrians have fled across the border to escape the violence.

At least 140,000 of this number are living in towns and cities across Jordan, but a large proportion are also being housed at the Zaatari camp in the north of the country. The site, which opened on 30 July, was originally designed to accommodate 20,000 people, but its population now stands at more than 26,000. A second camp is due to open at nearby Raba Sahrahn later this month, providing space for a further 20,000 refugees.

Their new hosts certainly do not lack experience in dealing with displaced people. There are two million Palestinians in Jordan, as well as some 450,000 Iraqis who are treated as temporary guests rather than refugees. But while hospitality has been plentiful, other things are in shorter supply in Jordan.

At a press conference in Amman on 1 September, the Minister of Planning & International Cooperation, Jafar Hassan, said that the cost of looking after the 140,000 refugees around the country would be $160m this year and $200m in 2013.

“The state cannot bear this burden in view of the current economic and financial conditions and the austerity programme it had launched, as well as the lack of direct aid from donors to offset such expenses,” he said.

A string of charities and UN agencies have been ramping up their operations in the country to help deal with the crisis. The UNHCR is taking the lead in providing for those living at Zaatari, helped by the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation, the World Food Programme and others.

Key refugee camp challenges

The speed and volume with which the refugees are arriving means it is hard to plan effectively. Some nights a few hundred arrive, but in one 24-hour period in late August almost 4,600 crossed the frontier. On average, the figure is running at almost 1,500 refugees a day.

“One of the challenges for us is that we don’t know on any one night how many people will come,” says Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR. “People are coming over under cover of darkness and things like the brightness of the moon can affect the pace at which people can cross.”

The Jordanian economy is ill-equipped to cope with the influx. High oil prices and persistent disruption to the supply of cheap gas from Egypt have led to spiralling energy costs. At the same time, regional political turmoil has kept tourists and investors away over the past 18 months, robbing Jordan of two critical sources of income.

The government typically runs a budget deficit every year regardless, but the fiscal problems are getting worse rather than better and it has few options to resolve the situation. On 2 September, King Abdullah ordered the government to shelve a fuel price rise after public protests against the move.

According to the Washington-headquartered IMF, Jordan’s fiscal deficit increased to 6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year. The violence in Syria has exacerbated the problems as it has effectively cut off what had been an important export market in its own right, as well as eliminating a trade route to other markets, such as Europe.

Amman finalised a three-year, $2bn assistance package from the IMF in the first week of August to help its beleaguered economy, with $385m being available immediately. Jordan’s international allies have also been stepping up their aid, with pledges ranging from $2.5m in the case of Ireland to $100m from the US. The government, however, says it needs more.

On 27 August, the Ministry of Planning launched an appeal for $429m to provide health, education and other basic services to Syrians in Jordan. The funds include $150m to expand the Zaatari camp and bring its capacity up to 80,000. Separately, Unicef, the UN’s children’s charity, has launched an appeal for $54m to cover the emergency needs of Syrian refugees in the Zaatari camp and surrounding areas. The UNHCR is due to launch a much larger appeal later this month, in conjunction with other UN agencies and international charities.

While the government and the agencies struggle to meet the demand for their services, there is a clear risk of social tensions emerging. In mid-August, there were several incidents of rioting in the Zaatari camp as residents protested about the dire conditions there. The violence left 28 policemen injured, according to the government.

Those in charge of the camp acknowledge that conditions need to be improved. People live in tents in scorching heat with limited facilities. There have been plans to move some into prefabricated shelters, expand the facilities for cooking and boost the availability of electricity, but it has been hard for those helping the refugees to keep up with the needs of a rapidly expanding population.

“It’s the environment and the dust that is of greatest concern to people,” says Rummery. “We’re working hard to improve conditions in the camp. We’re laying a base course of gravel, which will help minimise the dust and we’re gradually rolling out electricity supply to have lighting around the camp. There are gradual improvements under way, but at the same time, because of the influx of arrivals, we’re also busy registering those people and making sure they get their basic needs for food, water, shelter and so on. It’s a challenge.”

Whether tensions could flare up in Jordanian towns or cities remains to be seen, but it is not hard to imagine how such a large influx of people competing for services and jobs in a country short on both could cause problems.

Christopher Phillips, a lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London, says that the strain will be apparent with the start of the new school year in the past week. “The government is offering the refugees free education and healthcare, which will push the already stretched resources even further,” he says. “I think the government is worried, which is why they’re appealing for so much aid.”

Palestinian refugees in Jordan

Jordan at least has plenty of experience running refugee services. The UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, the UN Relief &Works Agency (UNRWA), operates 10 camps around the country. In some cases, such as the Jabal el-Hussein camp in Amman or the Irbid camp in the north, they are now all but indistinguishable from the cities around them. The oldest, at Zarqa, was established in 1949 and the camps are now an integral part of the Jordanian political and social landscape.

For the sake of their residents, it is to be hoped that the Syrian refugee camps are not required for as long. Anwar Abu Sakieneh, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, says that most people expect the Syrian camps to be a temporary solution and their occupants should return soon. “People think this will be for a temporary period of time and that they will eventually go back to Syria,” she says.

However, some Syrian refugees have already been in Jordan for more than a year. Ultimately, there is little they can do to control when they might return. Jordan, too, is left powerless in the face of events.