Fragile Sanctuary

Jordan Buckles Under the Stress of Hosting Syrian Refugees

A Jordanian soldier carries a Syrian refugee child as they walk with Syrian refugees on December 5, 2013. Courtesy Reuters

Syria began its descent into civil war this month three years ago and there remains very little the United States can do to end the fighting. But the fact that Washington cannot stop the conflict does not absolve it of responsibility for responding to its effects -- above all, to the worsening refugee crisis that now threatens to destabilize Syria’s neighbors and the region as a whole.

Containing the Syrian spillover is more important than ever in Jordan, one of Washington’s most consistent allies in the Middle East and an important partner in U.S. policy toward Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. Jordan is now home to approximately 600,000 Syrian refugees -- the equivalent of almost ten percent of Jordan’s population. By the end of the year, the refugee population is expected to rise to 800,000.

The plight of these Syrians is already a serious humanitarian concern, as made clear in many detailed reports about refugees at Zaatari, the main UN-administered refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. But the refugee crisis also represents a looming disaster for the Jordanian government, since about 80 percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps, choosing instead to reside among Jordanians, especially in poor towns close to the border with Syria. Indeed, the population of Jordan’s northern governorate has more than doubled since the outbreak of fighting in Syria, with Syrians now vastly outnumbering their Jordanian neighbors. 

Jordan’s government is already struggling to meet the refugees’ needs. During my recent visit to Mafraq, a small, impoverished city ten miles south of the Syrian border, trash was piled at intersections and excess sewage water trickled down the walkway, signs of the city’s overburdened public service systems. The local public school has become so overcrowded that it holds lessons in two shifts -- morning classes for half the students, afternoon classes for the rest. The influx of refugees has meant an increased demand

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