Jordan's Invisible Refugee Crisis
A crowd hovers around a truck parked outside the home of a Syrian family in the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq. Members of a local church working with the international aid organization Mercy Corps have just finished delivering a gas canister, heater, blankets and mattresses to one family. When other Syrian families see the truck, they flock to it.
Father Nour Sahawneh estimates that his church has gone door to door with aid for more than 15,000 families. But the number of those in need is not manageable, he says: “Every day more people are coming.” Many of them live in dire circumstances, such as the family of eleven staying in a two-room home where wind sweeps in through the gaps in a corrugated tin roof.
“It’s very difficult dealing with urban refugees,” says Kevin Fitzcharles, the country director of CARE International in Jordan, which runs a center in East Amman for Syrian refugees that distributes cash assistance and necessities. Because these refugees are not concentrated in one place, “we have to go to each individual apartment,” he continues (though he allows that the refugees clustering in poorer neighborhoods makes them slightly easier to find). Referrals from other refugees and organizations also bring Syrians to CARE’s center, and word travels rapidly. “Since December, we’ve had 14,000 people come to our center,” Fitzcharles says. “Some of them are duplicates—we didn’t have time to check them all.” CARE is now in the process of “trying to figure who’s new, who’s been with us once or who’s been several times, or who’s registered with UNHCR and who’s not.”
Registration with the UN agency brings benefits such as public schooling and even cash assistance. Registration also helps the aid organizations: once the refugees are registered, their names are added to a database through which organizations can coordinate and record what help people have received so that aid is distributed as fairly as possible. According to UNHCR’s Harper, in the past year the agency has carried out as many as 14,000 home visits—a significant number, yet one that represents only a fraction of the Syrian refugees in Jordan. “We have to find ways in which we can actually access those people who are most vulnerable in a systematic way,” Harper says. “It’s no use saying we can help everyone out there—we can’t.”
Maher and other refugees would likely agree. Maher has an appointment to register with UNHCR in May, even though he booked it at the beginning of February. He has already registered with two local charities, but he is frustrated with them for taking people’s names and giving almost nothing in return. Until he is registered with UNHCR, Maher cannot receive cash assistance from the agency, and without work—legally, he cannot hold a job, and opportunities in the informal sector are limited—he cannot stop worrying about how he and his family will continue to survive in Jordan.
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Syrians are desperate, but they are not the only ones in Jordan who need help: the poverty level in the country was 13.3 percent in 2008, and the unemployment rate is estimated at 12.2 percent. Father Sahawneh and others say that the rents in cities like Mafraq and Amman have at least doubled with the influx of refugees. “There must be more help for the Jordanians themselves,” he says.
At the same time that Syrian refugees have put increased strain on public services, Jordan is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to close its budget deficit—$2.49 billion in 2012—and implement an austerity program. “We need hundreds of millions of dollars to help Jordan get through this period,” says Harper. “The international community does have that type of funds,” he adds. “We’ve seen it in Iraq.”
Donors pledged $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis at a conference in Kuwait in January, but until mid-April, when Kuwait made a $300 million donation, actual funding languished at around 30 percent of the pledge. Among refugees, the perception remains that Syrian rebels are the priority. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed to funnel millions of dollars per month to pay opposition fighters’ salaries as early as April 2012. The CIA and State Department have had ties to the Free Syrian Army since March 2012, if not earlier; Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced another round of aid, bringing total US funding to the Syrian opposition to $250 million.
Without guaranteed funding, and with the promised humanitarian aid merely trickling in, long-term planning and implementation are virtually impossible, NGO officials say. “There’s a lot of uncertainties and moving parts,” says Saba al-Mobaslat, program director for Save the Children Jordan. “You continue struggling with the fact that your work with refugees might be cut off or jeopardized.”
“There must be a long-term solution,” says Sahawneh. He calls for investing in housing infrastructure to accommodate the Syrian refugees. In the city of Mafraq, Syrians number 70,000—more than the city’s 50,000 residents. “It can’t just be food package after food package,” he adds.
Outside the Syrian Women’s Association in East Amman, a young mother of five from Dara’a, Syria, shares her experiences while nursing her 9-month-old daughter. Her name is Wason; her husband is still in Syria, and she and her children are staying with one of his friends in Amman. “We have nothing,” she says. “But how long can we stay with this friend?”
In mid-February, Wason went to UNHCR to register and was told to return in July. She points to a black trash bag of clothes that she has just gotten from the Syrian Women’s Association. “They gave me that,” she says, her voice hushed yet strained to the point of breaking, her eyes sharply desperate. “Otherwise, no one is giving me anything. Where can I go? What can I do?”
Our blogger Robert Dreyfuss recently wrote that the CIA is “backing the same guys in Syria that we’re fighting in Iraq.”