As the battle in Syria continues to escalate, international media is beginning to pick up on the situation of those the fighting has displaced. News outlets are already predicting that Syria's civil war will result in a refugee crisis of "epic" proportions, which will swamp Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
Among Syria's neighbors, it is Jordan that has the best reputation for welcoming refugees -- its short history has been measured in waves of successive migrations, from the Caucasus, Palestine and Israel (several times), and Iraq. Unlike Lebanon, it is not saturated by Syrian security services, and compared to southeast Turkey in February, the climate is temperate. It is here that one would expect the lion's share of Syrians to flee.
Given the current estimates of those numbers -- in the thousands rather than even tens of thousands -- epic seems a stretch. What is certain is that the situation is serious, changing rapidly, and appears to be getting worse. For months, Syrians have been fleeing to Jordan in relatively small numbers. A few weeks ago, the feeling among many of the people already working to help refugees in Jordan was that the situation, though it bore watching, was within the capability of local institutions to manage. Today, that feeling is rapidly dissolving.
But so far, the Jordanian government has not put forth much of a strategy for dealing with this crisis, which could evolve in many different ways. Handling the current uncertainty requires learning the lessons of past forced migrations, and in particular of the Iraqi refugee crisis of 2006-2010, which evolved under somewhat similar circumstances.
Jordan's last refugee crisis came about, at least in part, because the Jordanian government and the international community had prepared themselves for the wrong disaster. When the bombs started falling on Baghdad in 2003, everyone expected Jordan's borders to be swamped by tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, demanding sanctuary. When that didn't happen, it was assumed that the danger was over.
No one seemed to predict what came next -- the slow, continuous buildup of a displaced population. The border between Iraq and Jordan had long been heavily trafficked, and by 2006 many more Iraqis were entering Jordan than were leaving. Some came on business or vacation and decided to stay until home got safer. Some who already lived in Jordan decided to bring their families. Others fled -- often after a kidnapping, or threats of violence against a family member. Many started off able to care for themselves, but months or years in exile, unable to work, ate away at their savings and left them in desperate need.
Today, in a strange sort of déjà vu, the discussion of Syrian displacement appears to center around the same assumption that a "crisis" will mean millions of families trying to cross the border all at once. The first response of the Jordanian government to this worry was to build a camp on the Syrian border. The partially state-owned Jordan Times recently ran a photo of a vast paved lot, surrounded by water tanks (it's not clear where you'd pitch a tent on the paved ground), and unnamed officials told the paper two more camps are being planned. But both the government and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, which was put in charge of preparing the camps, have declined to talk about how the camps will be managed, or by whom -- or even who is supposed to live in them.
The first camp was meant to open in mid-February, but there is no news of anyone actually using it; displaced Syrians, like the Iraqis before them, are taking up residence in Jordan's cities. It is possible that President Bashar al-Assad's next bombing campaign will indeed trigger an epic mass migration, with tens of thousands crowding Jordan's borders, a situation that might call for camps to house the large numbers of displaced. But it seems rather more likely that the migration of Syrians will continue in the vein in which it has begun, which resembles the movement of Iraqis in 2006 more than the crowds fleeing the Nakba in 1948.
Syrians still appear to enjoy free entry to Jordan, without need for a visa (though again, the government has declined to clarify its border policies). They settled first in the northern towns of Ramtha and Mafraq, according to the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS), a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides free medical care at a network of clinics around the country. But as the numbers of the displaced have grown over the past year, (and, perhaps, as housing has become harder to find in Ramtha and Mafraq) many have moved to other cities and towns across the kingdom. JHAS treats Syrians living even in the southern governorates of Kerak and Ma'an.
Some Syrians try to cross into Jordan illegally -- perhaps fearing being denied exit by their own government. So far, those who have been caught are temporarily detained at a government "guest house" in the north, until they pay a fee and normalize their status. The only Syrians kept under long-term detention are military defectors, of which the state papers report about 200.
In this situation, for whom is a camp intended? Will the government start sending all new arrivals there? And what about Syrians who are already living in Jordanian cities? Does the government think to move them? Or to provide services in the camps and hope that impoverished Syrians will come on their own?
The mostly likely guess (and it is, at best, a guess) is that the camps are not meant for Syrians at all, but for non-Syrians who might end up fleeing the fighting across borders. Such groups might include Palestinian and Iraqi refugees currently living in Syria, as well as Egyptian and East Asian migrant laborers. (There are plenty of precedents for this; after 2003, Jordan and Syria refused entry to Palestinian and Iranian refugees who were trying to flee Iraq, instead housing them in border camps.)
In the nightmare scenario of massive, sudden displacement, camps are useful; but in another predominantly urban refugee situation, they may turn out to be large white elephants that divert attention away from where the real issue is: the cities.
The second major lesson of the Iraqi displacement is that, particularly in a situation of urban displacement, there needs to be a serious attempt to find out who and how many are among the displaced, at least to an order of magnitude, and what are their needs.
In 2007, the Jordanian government wildly overestimated how many Iraqis needed aid, inflating the numbers aid organizations were seeing -- possibly by a factor of between five and 10. Presumably this was a tactic for getting financial assistance from the international community, as use of the inflated numbers went hand-in-hand with requests for financial assistance. And substantial amounts of aid did arrive -- perhaps because of the presumed scale of the crisis. But the aid was also delivered quite inefficiently, much of it spent on large infrastructure projects that did little to help displaced Iraqis, or put into programs that didn't reflect the refugees' needs.
Today, the government appears to be doing something similar in terms of its claims about the numbers of Syrians. Jordan's state-owned media continues to headline claims from anonymous official sources that more than 78,000 Syrians have "fled to Jordan" since the beginning of Assad's military crackdown last March.
The state papers are usually careful to caveat those headlines: that 78,000 is the total number of Syrians in Jordan, that they may not all be refugees, and that the number seeking aid is much smaller. But international media outlets often do not pick up on these subtleties of phrasing.
Indiscriminate claims of over 80,000 refugees are certainly misleading. UNHCR, which is allowing vulnerable Syrians to sign up to receive aid, has registered about 4,100 people as of this week. (That's up from just over 3,000 at the beginning of the month, and the agency continues to see demand from Syrians already in the country who wish to register.) JHAS, which has done interviews with displaced Syrians around Jordan, recently proffered a rough estimate of perhaps 9,000 Syrians in need of aid.
There are many possible explanations for the disparity. Jordan and Syria (much like Jordan and Iraq, once upon a time) share a much-trafficked border. Syrians are always entering and leaving, and at any given time there will be some number of Syrians in the country. Then there are dual nationals, who may reside in Jordan as Jordanians, but use their Syrian passports to cross the border. The government has not responded to numerous requests to explain its figures, but it seems inevitable the state's estimates include large numbers of Syrians or Syrian-Jordanians who are in Jordan for reasons other than "fleeing the fighting," and who should not be considered refugees.
Any attempt to help the Syrians in need would be greatly improved by being based on a more accurate estimate of the number who need assistance, and a better idea of the kind of support they feel they need.
And there do appear to be real, serious needs among displaced Syrians. JHAS's interviews show many refugee families face a catalog of familiar problems: poor housing, limited access to water, and no income. Some have chronic health problems with few treatment options other than from already-crowded charity clinics. Most disturbing, the vast majority of refugees interviewed were from families with few resources and limited education -- out of just over 400 adults interviewed, 31 were illiterate, and only a handful had more than a primary education.
The refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan. As was the case for Iraqis before them, some families that are not currently vulnerable may become so if the crisis goes on for years, and they find themselves exhausting their savings. Some may find work in the informal sector -- though competition for those jobs will likely only get tougher. Others will remain dependent on aid for their survival. And Jordan is in the middle of a profound economic slump; the urban communities Syrians have settled in are almost universally under-resourced. As the numbers of displaced grow, local schools will face crowding issues, hospitals will be under-staffed, and the Jordanian treasury will be further taxed by the increased consumption of heavily subsidized water, gas, electricity, and consumer goods.
At the moment, a variety of humanitarian organizations are involved in trying to improve the situation. The UNHCR and its partners, including JHAS, have been providing assistance to some displaced Syrians for months. In the cities where Syrians have settled, there are numerous reports of local charities, aid organizations, and private individuals helping provide for the basic needs of the displaced. The Islamic Kitab wa Sunna organization is also dispensing aid. More get involved every day. The UAE Red Crescent has stepped in to help, according to the latest news reports. The government is working on setting up a field hospital in Mafraq to deal with wounded refugees, and the European Commission has offered a few million euros of humanitarian relief.
But if 1,000 or more Syrians continue to register each month (and if that number reflects an ongoing trend in actual arrivals) then those resources will soon prove insufficient. And if there is not enough planning put into the response, the aid provided risks, again, solving the wrong problems, while leaving the real issues faced by the most vulnerable un-addressed.
However, the indicators are not all bad. For one thing, the numbers, though growing, still seem reasonably manageable (though that management could likely be aided both by strategic planning and transparency).
Jordan's is already home to nearly 2 million Palestinians who are classified as refugees, and tens of thousands of Iraqis. In some sense, another refugee population is Jordan's nightmare. In 2006, when unprecedented numbers of Iraqis first began to appear in Jordan, the government seemed to adopt a policy of quietly making life difficult for the visitors, in the hope they would decide to go back home. (Call it self-deportation.) However, this time there have been no reports of such a policy. Though cagy about its plans, the government has been open to acknowledging the presence of displaced Syrians, and even accepting that some may be "refugees," a word that carries problematic connotations in this context. The government has also been proactive in making it clear Syrian children would have full access to Jordanian schools -- though it's not clear how long that commitment will last. (Jordan waffled on school access for Iraqis for years, offering it and then taking it back repeatedly.)
Iraqis were eventually offered access to government hospitals at the same rate as Jordanians; it is not clear if any such offer extends to Syrians. The state press has reported that Syrians will get free medical care but the government has not commented and some NGO sources say those reports are erroneous.
JHAS officials have been able to handle most of the medical needs they are seeing, but this too, is shifting -- and officials there worry health access could become a serious problem if the arriving Syrians begin to include large numbers of injured (especially since local hospitals are currently crowded with Libyans in Jordan on aid packages).
And so far, at least, the public response to displaced Syrians appears positive. The state media apparatus has lined up, to the degree it can, with the Syrian people. Government newspapers faithfully cover both reports of violence over the border and anti-Assad protests at home. The overall impression that is conveyed is that the Syrian people are brother Arabs, fighting for liberation against an oppressive government.
But this too could change. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, which was wildly unpopular in Jordan, Iraqi refugees too were widely seen as "brothers," victims of U.S. colonial aggression. Yet, over the next three years, the increasing violence, including an attack on the Jordanian embassy by Iraqi insurgents and a suicide bombing in Iraq by a Jordanian national, set off a series of political crises between the two countries. Growing fears of Iranian influence may have negatively influenced Sunni Jordanians' perception of the Shiites among the refugees. By 2007-2008, Jordanians were very willing to blame a mass influx of Iraqis for all their country's economic woes.
If economic conditions worsen in Jordan (as they well might, given the country's budget problems and the recent crisis over its Egyptian natural gas supply) or if violence in Syria increases and starts to affect Jordanian citizens, attitudes toward Syrians may quickly sour. Already there are tensions between the governments, which could cut either way in terms of public perception.
That the refugee issue is, at the moment, manageable is all the more reason for governments and aid organizations to work together to plan, in a transparent manner, for the most likely eventualities. They should work to ensure that assistance is delivered to those who need it, and that Jordan is able to maintain its "open door" policy, without being made to suffer economic or social consequences in exchange for its generosity.
Nicholas Seeley is a freelance journalist who has lived in Amman, Jordan since 2004.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images