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

Fragile Sanctuary

Jordan Buckles Under the Stress of Hosting Syrian Refugees

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 for housing that, when combined with the influence of rent subsidies provided to Syrian refugees by nonprofit groups, has caused rents to double and, in some cases, triple. As a result, some Jordanians have been forced from their homes, unable to pay the increased fees. In March 2013, one group of locals set up a small tent city in protest, labeling the UNHCR tents purchased off the refugees’ black market as a “camp of displaced Jordanians.” The nearby hospital, which offers free services to Syrian refugees, is similarly strained; Syrians now account for between ten and 18 percent of the patients, causing shortages in medicine and resulting in some medical facilities being filled to capacity.

The refugee crisis has exacerbated many of Jordan’s preexisting problems. The country’s social welfare system was in disrepair even before the arrival of Syrians. Indeed, the public’s frustration with health, education, and sanitation services -- as well as the country’s generally weak economy -- exploded in a series of protests and riots across the country in 2012, triggered by the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies. As one local observer in Amman told me, “Everything was already collapsing when the Syrians showed up.”

The situation has caused steadily increasing tensions within the Jordanian host community -- a sense of frustration that, in the view of some local observers, will eventually destabilize Jordan. Jordanians routinely and vociferously complain that their government -- and the international community -- is helping Syrian refugees at the expense of their own struggling citizens. This widespread frustration has not yet caused significant violence, but a number of minor incidents -- roadblocks made of burning tires on the way to the Zaatari refugee camp and stones thrown at trucks delivering aid to refugees -- may foreshadow a looming problem as Jordanians’ anger hardens against their own government. As one Jordanian told me, they believe that “Syrians are taking their chances” and that the Jordanian government is abetting the process.

The United States needs to help address this problem soon, or risk losing one of its closest Middle East allies. Washington should begin by considering Amman’s January request to the international community for $4.1 billion in development assistance to support the country’s strained health, education, sanitation, and other public services. It is true that the Hashemite kingdom is using the Syrian refugee crisis to address long-standing domestic problems. But the two issues are now inextricably intertwined, and it has become critical to support social services for Jordanians as well as Syrians.

The United States should also expand its direct humanitarian assistance. But it should do so in a way that simultaneously supports long-term development objectives and avoids angering the Jordanian host community. For instance, aid organizations should split their assistance -- whether in the form of cash and in-kind assistance or vocational training and psychological support programs -- between Syrian refugees and needy Jordanians. The United States should also help the international community develop more programs that are responsive to the needs of both Jordanians and Syrians and that encourage cooperation among them. One existing program, funded by the United States along with European allies, pays Jordanian homeowners to add space to their homes that, on completion, is rented to refugees for a defined period, after which the space can be used however the owners wish. Such projects very directly benefit both groups and are, therefore, the best way to mitigate tensions between them.

Finally, Washington must remind Jordanians and Syrians that all of this is only a temporary fix. Yes, hundreds of thousands of Syrians will call Jordan home for the next several years. But Jordan is only an interim refuge. However, while Syrian refugees are in Jordan, they need to be given opportunities to hone skills they will need in the future, in Syria. This includes better integrating them into the local economy and expanding educational opportunities for older students -- not to make Syrians long-term residents but to prepare them to return home and rebuild their country as soon as possible.

Supporting refugees is often costly, financially and otherwise, and Jordan is already having trouble coping. The United States and key partner nations must continue supporting the still-growing Syrian refugee population there while working to better mitigate the effect refugees are having on local Jordanians. This requires a combination of humanitarian aid and development assistance, with an understanding that helping displaced Syrians requires helping displaced Jordanians, too. If not, Syria’s spillover risks destabilizing Jordan even more than it already has.

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