Wednesday, 3 December 2014
Two brothers faced each other in wheelchairs. Only by sheer accident of fate did these two Syrian refugees find themselves reunited in a small center in central Amman. Every refugee there had a story, each one enough to scar for a lifetime.
Many at the center had been injured by barrel bombs. One man had lost a third of his brain as a result of a sniper’s bullet, with a grapefruit sized hole in the side of his head. A chemistry teacher had lost one eye and could not even remember how he arrived in Jordan. Ibrahim was eleven having lost his mother and sisters to a barrel bomb. Now he excitedly connects to the world on his mobile by Facebook. It seems to calm him that he can talk to the outside world and so forget his own. Cyberlinks aside, the question remains whether the real world is communicating, listening and still cares. Is the outside world about to abandon them and in the process abandon Jordan too?
The Syrian refugees in Jordan now number in excess of 1.3 million according to Jordanian figures, some 618,000 of whom are registered with the United Nations. When asked when Jordan would reach saturation point, the Interior Minister Hussein Al-Majali was adamant that the Kingdom had reached saturation point two years ago, a fair enough claim given that Jordan already has two million Palestinian refugees and around 29,000 Iraqis registered with the U.N.
“Jordan’s international obligations are to keep its borders open but can it bear the entire burden?”
Anger against Syrians is rising amongst Jordanians who blame them for taking jobs and causing rises in rents. Typically there is less attention paid as to what benefits the Syrians are bringing to the economy but aid comes in and Syrians spend money in Jordan. One survey suggests that actually Syrians tend to replace Egyptian and other non-Jordanian workers.
Running out of options
Jordan has few options. The King has promised that Jordan will take in all Syrian refugees. Officials confirmed that bit-by-bit those stranded on the Syrian-Jordanian border, estimated at around 3000-4000, will be allowed in but such reassurances have not convinced human rights groups and aid agencies. Eighty per cent of refugees are still outside the camps but increasingly Syrian refugees are even going back to Za’atari refugee camp, the fourth largest city in Jordan. Camp officials admit that numbers are on the rise again. It seems clear that the Jordanian authorities prefer this option, given that it might help ease tensions with overburdened Jordanian host communities.
Staying outside the camps has become far tougher. Most Syrians are running out of the funds they had brought with them from Syria, are in debt and cannot find jobs. They cannot officially work in Jordan although many do so in the informal economy. At least in the camps, they can get shelter, services and provisions.
There is a sizeable drop in funding. This has led to the World Food Program cutting its assistance, meaning 12,000 Syrian families in Jordan no longer benefit. Refugees will lose this vital service just as winter sets in. Cuts in funding are likely to get worse. Jordan has ceased providing free healthcare to refugees in an announcement at the end of November. This was costing Jordan $30 million a year. In education, Jordanian schools are overcrowded and working double shifts. Who will fill this gap?
Increasingly, human rights groups and aid agencies are starting to criticize Jordan including for possible forcible deportations back into Syria. Some of the criticisms may be valid, yet how much can one blame Jordan? This is a tough call. Those who do might have to think what it would be like to have 70 million refugees arriving in the U.S. in a three-year period. It is straining the incredible reserves of Jordanian hospitality and resources as is also happening in Lebanon. Jordan has far less water than Lebanon not helped by successive years of low rainfall so the additional consumption further drains vital underground resources. Its energy sector has been hit by disruption in Egyptian gas supplies.
Jordan’s international obligations are to keep its borders open but can it bear the entire burden? For sure there can be improvements. Aid agencies would love to see better coordination between them and the authorities, less red tape with a more streamlined projects approval process. Jordan still suffers from inefficiencies and wastage.
Jordan finds itself in this predicament largely because of the failure of other states. The Syrian regime bears the primary responsibility for the crisis in Syria and the refugee exodus into neighboring countries. Jordan got involved in the conflict but not the extent of Turkey or Iran for example. The regional powers have squabbled over Syria backing rival groups, on the one hand fuelling the crisis and on the other failing to assist the immediate neighboring states to deal with the fall-out. The wider international community has also failed in its obligations. Funding is drying up and donor exhaustion is clear.
All of this is exacerbated by the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups. The Jordanian security services are understandably nervous and ever watchful about infiltration by ISIS and are preparing themselves for possible attacks. More than ever the refugees are under watch. Syrian community centers helping the refugees fear closures. The authorities say they may be used for political purposes.
This is an existential issue for Jordan as it is for the Syrian refugees. Jordan can be pulled apart by the strains created combined with additional refugee flows from Iraq. The Syrian refugees know this and feel nervous. The international community has to act swiftly and decisively. Jordan and indeed Lebanon need more support as do the Syrian refugees. Allowing state collapse or abandoning the refugees will only be welcome news for ISIS watching in the wings.
I get a Facebook message from one of the refugee children. “Will anyone be coming to help us?” How do I answer?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.