While Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August shocked the world and provoked outrage of various degrees from Western powers, an overlooked consequence of the 30-month long civil war has been the refugee crisis that has spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and even Egypt, with whom Syria does not share a border.
Approximately two million Syrian refugees are registered as such in those countries, but the true number of displaced persons could be much higher, especially in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands more Syrians are thought to have crossed the border illegally.
Many Jordanians are becoming increasing wary of the flood of refugees into their country. A country of 6 million, Jordan has absorbed at least 600,000 displaced Syrians, if not many more. The Jordanian Minister for Planning and International Cooperation compared the situation to the United States having to take in the entire population of Canada.
A refugee influx of such magnitude could have significantly disruptive effects on the demographic balance in the country. Jordan’s government has already had to make significant concessions during the early months of the Arab Spring, and many government officials and Jordanians fear that the Syrian refugee crisis could threaten the country politically, economically, and socially.
Jordan has had a history of receiving refugees from its neighbors in that tumultuous region. In the twenty years after the partition of the Palestinian territories, millions of Palestinians flooded into Jordan. Most have settled in the country permanently and have been given full citizenship rights. Today, just under 2 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan are UN-registered.
What’s more, the hundreds of thousands of refugees who came in through Jordan’s northeast border with Iraq in the last two decades remain in the country, and thousands of Lebanese seeking to flee the country during skirmishes with Israel over the last few decades have also sought Jordan as a refuge. With this historical context in mind, Jordanians are understandably afraid that the newest wave of Syrian refugees will settle within their borders for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. Aside from demographic consequences, Jordan is spending $1 billion annually to accommodate the Syrian refugees.
For now, most of the Syrian refugees are living in organized camps in the northern part of Jordan. Zaatari, a camp of 140,000, was set up over a year ago and is continuing to grow, creeping closer to the nearby town of Mafraq. Many low-skilled Jordanians express frustration at losing jobs to Syrian refugees who are willing to work longer and for less pay. Registered Syrian refugees also receive humanitarian aid from the United Nations while Jordanians no better off financially do not. Jordanian schools in the area have also had to absorb an influx of Syrian children, many of whom suffer from psychological trauma from the war or have never attended school back in their home country. Municipal services such as garbage collection and sewage maintenance in Mafraq have also been overwhelmed.
In the Zaatari camp itself, already Jordan’s fourth-largest “city”, signs of long-term settlement have begun to surface. One family built a swimming pool and another built a tiered fountain in their backyards. Shops set up on the commercial strip in Zaatari, nicknamed the Champs-Elysees, are being constructed from corrugated metals and concrete now, a change from the tents set up before.
Due to Zaatari’s continued growth, a second camp named Azraq is being constructed nearby. At capacity, Azraq will hold approximately 130,000 refugees.