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The Burden to Bear: A Host in Crisis

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MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Since 2012 some 550,000 desperate refugees from the Syrian Civil War have received safe asylum in Jordan thanks to the efforts of various international relief organizations, the financial backing of other Arab nations, and, above all, the Hashemite Kingdom itself. But the compulsion to keep open Jordan's borders, while charitable, repeats for many Jordanians the narrative of oft-warring neighbors inflicting Jordan with the refugees of their wars.

These Jordanians are now wrestling with three questions: (1) how can we host so many refugees (2) when are they leaving, and (3) how do they not further injure Jordan? The emergence of vast new urban refugee centers such as Zaatari, now Jordan's fourth largest city, pose a dangerous threat to the stability of the nascent democratic Hashemite regime. Although the efforts of USAID have been important in providing some backbone to the Jordanian economy, they have proved insufficient. The West must accelerate its plans to bolster King Abdullah and meet the financial requirements created by so many refugees lest it sees another friendly government fall, not to the hands of its own citizens, but to the devastating fallout of Bashar al-Assad's aggression against his own people. Without providing such help, the West could very well be sowing the seeds of even more calamity in the region, this time through its negligence.

The bus from Amman fills quickly with travelers to al-Mafraq, the governorate north of the capital that is the home of Zaatari refugee camp, the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world after the wildly overcrowded Dadaab in Kenya. With only one stop before al-Mafraq, the bus is crammed with those carrying bundles of clothes and food to leave with family and friends that make up some of the roughly 115,000 now living in Zaatari. From al-Mafraq, a short walk leads to a bustling square, full of dusty, hastily-built single-story shops catering to the residents of Zaatari. From there, dozens of buses constantly depart for the camp, passing walled-in enclosures and dozens of roadside produce vendors. The main gate leads to a long road between two dusty fields. This road has seen more than 350,000 refugees trudging along to be registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees ("UNHCR") and enter into the sprawling new "city". This sprawling camp-city-state holds less than a quarter of Jordan's Syrian refugees, but is a success in many ways. The rest have been absorbed in what are called "host communities", simply weaving into Jordan's population, mainly in the cities of Amman, Irbid, Zarqa and Mafraq. These local governments have graciously continued to host these refugees and have become the major administrators for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in their communities. These Syrians have found unsteady work throughout the local economy, mainly in manual labor and part time in restaurants. An influx of more than 600,000 souls would be felt anywhere, but in fragile Jordan, the human and financial toll of the Syrian crisis is felt hard throughout the country, and there is now an acute need for additional financial support to Jordan. Failure to understand and address the magnitude of the burden that Jordan bears, could prove to be disastrous.

The threat of ongoing war in Syria is not an external pressure on the Kingdom, the danger of spillover is not that of military intrusion. The danger is from so many new inhabitants living at the expense of Jordan and its citizens. Even the military recruiters for the Free Syrian Army that have had a constant presence in Zaatari do not seek to involve any part of Jordan into the conflict. Nor is there a problem of domestic insurgency. Rather, the numerous costly repercussions of hosting so many refugees represent dozens of daily pinpricks poking at the stability of the Kingdom.

Managing the camps has proven a monumental task. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has gone a long way towards securing the nutrition needs of Zaatari's residents, providing staple grains as well as cash vouchers that allow for more flexible food choices. These efforts have helped meet the large gap in the financial situation of newly arriving refugees, and with ever-increasing sources of aid and income for refugees, the food security of Zaatari seems to be strengthening.

Since Zaatari first opened in July of 2012, it has seen increased enrollment in schools, availability of medical care and shelter, and with that has come a greater sense of permanence and stability. The violence that rocked the camp last year has cooled. This increasing permanence has lent itself well to a slow dialogue between the aid organizations and the beneficiaries. But the rocks that flew for much of last year and the fortified office buildings remain stark reminders of the dangers that lurk.

The cost of accommodating the swelling number of refugees is staggering. When Zaatari opened its gates, Jordan was host to 40,000 registered refugees and estimated the cost of hosting these victims of the crisis in Syria at roughly $200MM per year. Now, three times that original population lives in Zaatari alone, and the Jordanian government estimates that there are roughly a million refugees residing in the country. The business of Jordan cannot simply continue being the host to so many refugees.

This herculean effort of playing host carries with it a problem Jordan knows all too well, having experienced two inflows of Iraqi refugees in 1990 during the Gulf War, and again in 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq. While the wave of refugees from the Gulf War was an affluent group, seen by many as contributing to their hosts with their wealth, the last wave of Iraqis was a drain on the Jordanian economy. Considered as "visitors" to Jordan, and thus unregistered, it is estimated that more than 750,000 Iraqis found shelter in their western neighbor from the onset of war in 2003. Jordan estimates that there are roughly 450,000 Iraqis still living in the country. The government's acceptance of this last batch drew wide criticism and put new strains on many of the programs Jordan provides to its own citizens.

What began as another generous relief effort in 2012, a year that saw 100,000 Syrian refugees enter Jordan, has turned in the eyes of many Jordanians into a fiasco. The most catastrophic estimates for 2013 contingency planning gave the next wave of refugees a figure of 550,000, but that number was reached in early 2013 due to fresh fighting that began in March between the Free Syrian Army and Assad's army in Daraa, on the Jordanian border and led to daily registrations more than 1,000 refugees.

The focus of the international media centered fully on Syria in response to Assad's chemical weapons, but the impact of such an intense year of combat had already been felt in Jordan. Prior to the chemical weapons attacks on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21, the number of Syrian refugees under registration with the UNHCR in Jordan passed the 500,000 mark. But Jordan estimates more than 300,000 additional unregistered refugees; thus, the country added some 12 percent to its populace in a year.

These refugees are not all living with their immediate needs provided for in the refugee camps, but are spread out in host communities with widely divergent levels of aid. In addition to Zaatari refugees, there are several thousands more refugees living in smaller camps, such as King Abdullah Park and Cyber City in Irbid. The October, 2013 statistics of the four highest concentrations painting a more complete picture. With 165,000 in Irbid, 157,000 in Amman, 53,000 in Zarqa, and 31,000 in Al-Mafraq, host communities throughout Jordan are becoming, "overrun with refugees."

Coming during a budget deficit and on the heels of economic turmoil, this literal invasion is justly making Jordanians fear for how they will provide for themselves and their families. This was the picture Abu Muhammad painted for me. He had lost his job this summer, one of an increasing number of Jordanians who had long found employment in the unregulated work sector and have lost out to the increasing competition of an estimated 160,000 refugees in the labor market. Although the permits to work legally in Jordan are prohibitively expensive for many refugees, illegal employment has remained a constant and near-insoluble threat to the economic vitality of Jordanian citizens.

This is the situation in Jordan now, but what will that situation entail if, as the UNHCR's 2014 estimates report, another 200,000 refugees enter the country in 2014? This increased strain will be in part met by the new camp in Zarqa, set to operate at a capacity of 80,000 by the end of 2014 with the potential to host over 130,000. But that will not alleviate the financial burden placed on Jordan to provide aid for the numerous refugees living elsewhere in the country.

King Abdullah II, who has taken an active stance in Jordan's role as host to the Syrian refugees, has been a staunch supporter of the United States throughout his reign. The US needs to respond in kind to the recent news of the estimated funding gap for the levels of aid required to provide for the Syrian refugees living throughout Jordan. The UN's appeal to the world for an additional $6.5 billion in funding for the refugee crisis emanating from Syria will hopefully be heard in governments throughout the world. This appeal will help to provide for the millions of people in need of assistance both inside and outside of Syria, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan. With the UN estimating the cost of aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan at $5.3 billion by the end of 2014, the combined effort to provide for the refugees had received roughly 22 percent of the required budget from numerous donor countries by the end of October. The amount of funding required through the next year is indeed a monumental task, but the global community must step up to the task, both to provide for the millions of refugees in dire straits and to shore up Syria's neighbors so that they can continue to provide the aid so desperately needed in the months and possibly years to come.

The announcement last month of IMF approval for the release of a further $261 million of a total $2 billion has alleviated those concerns in some circles, but has been offset by the new fears of subsidy reform. Proposed cuts to the structure of electricity and fuel subsidies, due to the rising costs to the government owned National Electric Power Company, has been particularly worrisome. A condition of the loan, such changes to the subsidy structure were a major impetus for the 2012 protests. Coming at a time when polls indicate a low trust of economic improvement among Jordan's citizenry, there is a fear that these unpopular reforms could provoke more domestic unrest.

Jordan's allies need to take a decisive step in promoting the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in host communities and the Jordanian citizens affected by the crisis. Prolonged aid designed to sustain current levels of support provided by the government will not have the impact of bolstering the government's ability to provide for the needs of its citizens and its new inhabitants. It is a matter of getting ahead, of allowing Jordan to stimulate its own economy, providing its own bulwark against the economic distress this crisis causes its own citizens.

With the uncertainty surrounding Syria, it is a major challenge to Jordan to plan for how long it will host its refugees. The U.S. and their allies, must take a proactive stance to providing Jordan with the aid it needs to not only provide for the refugees needs now, but also to protect against the instability hosting so many souls will engender.

The Hashemite Monarchy has survived pressures both internal and external and has been a model of a secular stable government in the Arab world. Having weathered past strains of domestic strife and neighboring war, this new burden put upon it by the veritable onslaught of Syrian refugees is a new beast. This crisis weighs heavily on Jordan, a gracious host that cannot possibly gain from the stress currently pressing against it. The response to the Syrian problem must encompass permanent long-term aid to further develop and reward Jordan for the burden being inflicted upon it now. The alternative, so awful to contemplate, is a meltdown of this friendly, stable Kingdom resting at the heart of so much turmoil in the Arab world.