Jordan’s Invisible Refugee Crisis

Jordan’s Invisible Refugee Crisis

After fleeing violence at home, Syrians struggle to eke out a new life in Jordan’s cities and towns.


Syrian boy in Mafraq, Jordan
Many Syrian refugees living in Mafraq, Jordan, live in homes that are barely habitable. Photo by Elizabeth Whitman.

Nestled in a mass of concrete houses in a poor neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, is a bare two-room apartment, home to a 30-year-old Syrian named Maher, his 24-year-old wife Nour, their young son and daughter, and five members of his wife’s family. Only a few rays of sunlight filter into the apartment’s damp outer room, and all nine people sleep in the more habitable inner room on cushions given to them by their neighbors. Maher’s family has a small combination heater-stove courtesy of a charity organization, no refrigerator, and a four-foot-square bathroom with a squat toilet. The walls are peeling so badly that picking at the paint is a pastime for the children.

Maher, who asked that their real names not be used for the sake of family still in Syria, fled his hometown of Homs, Syria, with his wife and children in mid-February of last year, after the Syrian Army began shelling the area. The four of them moved to another city in Syria before fleeing in January to Jordan. They wound up in Za’atari in northern Jordan, the country’s biggest camp for Syrian refugees. Maher once had a Kia and a job installing satellite dishes, but now he spends his days looking for work in Amman or helping friends find aid organizations from which he, too, has sought cash assistance, blankets, heaters and clothing.

But Maher is growing desperate. He arrived here with 500 Jordanian dinars, or about $700; then he spent 300 of that to pay a driver to help him escape from Za’atari and another 150 on his first month of rent. (Syrians don’t need a visa to enter Jordan, but they’re allowed to live outside the refugee camps only if they cross the border legally—which Maher and his family did not—or are bailed out by a Jordanian sponsor.) “Here in Amman, the circumstances are better than Za’atari,” Maher allows, sipping from his Turkish coffee before lighting up a cigarette. “We come from cities—we can’t live in a camp.” For Syrians who have spent their lives in an urban setting, adjusting to Za’atari’s crowded, dusty and often smelly tent city is especially difficult—and because leaving the camp is not hard, the decision to escape to a city like Amman is an obvious one.

Konady Kone, UNICEF’s camp manager in Za’atari, says it’s impossible to know exactly how many Syrians leave Za’atari—but it’s “a lot.” From the main gate of the camp, people can easily walk to a nearby farm. “The fence is broken,” he explains. “In five minutes, you’re on the main road. And the taxis are waiting.” He flashes a wicked grin. 

“It’s better that we fled the bombing back in Syria,” Maher says. But the fifty dinars he was left with will not last him much longer. “We need help.”

Maher’s story is not uncommon among the 470,000 Syrian refugees the government estimates are living in Jordan. Eighty percent of them reside in cities and towns, not the highly publicized camps. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, or UNHCR, the UN’s relief agency, is overseeing the response to the crisis. It too would like to see the Syrian refugees living in local communities rather than the “alien, artificial environment” of the camps, says Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative to Jordan. The Jordanian government, however, wants to direct the refugees to camps funded primarily by the UN. Outside the camps, refugees use public resources, such as schools, and consume subsidized goods, generating “significant direct and indirect costs” for Jordan, according to the government’s latest response plan, to the tune of more than $251 million in 2012 and a projected $489.1 million in 2013. (In Jordan, water, bread and household gas are subsidized, as is healthcare, while government schooling is free.) Carsten Hansen, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which plays a leading role in running Za’atari, acknowledges that the camps are “the absolute least desired way of hosting refugees,” as well as the most expensive.

Refugees living outside the camps often need the most help but are the least able to gain access to it. ACTED, an NGO operating in the country, estimates from a survey of more than 12,000 refugee families that nearly 70 percent of the refugees living in cities in the five northern Jordanian governates “have the capacity to cope with their current living conditions for a maximum of two months.” Meanwhile, the resources of both Jordan and the aid organizations are being stretched thin. 

An average of 2,000 Syrians enter Jordan daily. The number of Syrian refugees throughout the region exceeded 1 million in early March, well ahead of the UN’s projection of 1.1 million refugees by June. The UN and other NGOs in Jordan estimated that their programs and services would cost more than $495 million for just the first half of 2013, about $132 million of which, or 27 percent, had materialized as of March 15. That amount did not include the costs incurred by the Jordanian government once the refugees start using subsidized commodities and services. 

With funding so precarious and the refugee population growing so quickly, the UN, other aid organizations and the Jordanian government are hard-pressed to provide for these people adequately. Many aid workers acknowledge that the short-term assistance they are able to offer is unsustainable, while planning for long-term projects is nearly impossible without guaranteed funding. And the refugees are suffering the consequences. 

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

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