The New York Times
Jordan Girds for Influx of Syrian Refugees
By RANA F. SWEIS
MAFRAQ, JORDAN — In this northern Jordanian town, just a few minutes from the Syrian border, tall water tanks can be seen from a distance and an empty lot is encircled with barbed wire.
The refugee camp, still in the process of being prepared, has not been officially opened by the government but is indicative of the preparations being made as more Syrians are expected to flee the violence in their country.
“The last resort is a camp situation,” said Andrew Harper, who heads the Jordan office of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “Our utmost priority is to provide those in need with the necessary protection.”
As of March 15, the U.N. refugee agency had registered 5,391 Syrians in Jordan and more than 2,000 were waiting for an appointment to register.
Precise figures are hard to come by. A government spokesman, Rakan Majali, said last month that about 80,000 Syrians had sought refuge in Jordan in the 12 months through February. But Panos Moumtzis, the Syria coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva last week that since the Syrian government crackdown began last year, 30,000 people had fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Since independence from Britain in 1946, Jordan has given refuge to various waves of refugees as a result of regional conflicts: Palestinians, Iraqis and now Syrians. But the country is facing increasingly difficult economic conditions, and refugees could affect that for the worse, Bassam Haddadin, a member of Parliament, said in an interview.
“We believe there is an increase in the number of refugees, and at the end of the day this will be a difficult challenge for Jordan, economically, socially and even politically,” he said. “We will soon begin feeling the consequences. The refugees will increase the poverty rate, and they will become a burden on the health care and education system. But this is a humanitarian disaster. We cannot abandon the Syrian people.”
Just northwest of Mafraq is Ramtha, an impoverished city across the border from Dara’a, birthplace of the rebellion, that has become a haven for Syrians. Jordanians in Ramtha have strong tribal and family ties with people in Dara’a. Many Syrians have taken shelter with relatives here.
Hussein al-Khozahe, a sociologist and expert in developmental studies at Al-Balqa Applied University in Amman, said the refugees had brought the conflict closer to their Jordanian hosts.
“When Jordanians listen to their stories, live with them and attend schools with them, the conflict is no longer something Jordanians only watch on television or read about,” he said. “It becomes very real.”
In response to the Arab Spring, the Jordanian government scrapped a rule requiring consent to hold rallies. Thousands of people have since taken to the streets to protest rising prices, poverty and unemployment.
“Jordanians will pay the price, and we will continue to worry about the permanency of these waves of refugees,” Mr. Khozahe said. “Politically, the situation is becoming more complex on the ground, which may prolong or even increase the humanitarian disaster.”
In this part of Jordan, smuggling has largely replaced a healthy cross-border trade in clothes, food and other goods. Sami Mugrabi, who owns a wholesale grocery shop in Ramtha, said he used to rely heavily on customers from Syria. Today his shop is mostly empty. “My livelihood has been destroyed and it is too difficult to send items to the border,” Mr. Mugrabi said. “Those who are fleeing the violence are not going back.”
The government has set up a temporary shelter in Ramtha for Syrians who crossed the border illegally, and the U.N. refugee agency provides help to those living there.
“We are providing food and non-food items including blankets, heaters, stoves, clothes, beds,” said Mr. Harper, of the U.N. refugee agency. He said that the assistance was not sufficient and that more needed to be done.
A report provided by the agency showed a significant increase in the numbers there. “I go in and out of the protected facility for refugees and I can tell you it’s difficult to find an empty room,” said Abu Hadi, 37, who fled Syria two months ago. Like other refugees interviewed, his last name has been withheld for his safety.
Although Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.N. refugee agency and the government signed an agreement in 1998 specifying that asylum seekers may stay in Jordan pending refugee status determination.
Lebanon and Turkey also continue to open their borders to refugees, but Human Rights Watch reported last week that Syria had placed land mines “near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey.”
Some Syrian refugees living in Ramtha and Mafraq described harrowing scenes. One of them, Abu Bakr, 43, crossed the border last summer. “On the way to Jordan’s border there is a lot of open space and there are also trees, even new land mines,” he said in a cold, cramped corner of his living room as his 5-year-old son sat next to him. “The worst thing is, if we are caught by the Syrian Army we would be executed on the spot.”
Although other refugees who crossed illegally corroborated such statements, his claims could not be independently verified.
Another refugee, Um Suheib, 28, spoke of worrying about her husband, who was wanted for participating in the uprising. “For two months, I lived in fear and I didn’t know where my husband was,” she said, seated with her three daughters in Ramtha.
“I only heard from him when he arrived in Jordan,” she said. “My husband was smuggled in, but I came later with my girls legally. Once I crossed into Jordan, I was not worried anymore.”