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
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
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
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
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
between the governments, which could cut either way in terms of
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.
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