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Jordan Struggles with Next Door’s Chaos and Influx of Syrian Refugees

May 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Jordan now houses a third of the Syrian refugees who fled their country's civil war, with 120,000 of them settled in tents or "caravan" trailer units at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. PBS NewsHour reports from the camp, located just a few miles from the Syrian border.
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RAY SUAREZ: We turn now to another nation struggling to cope with the chaos in next-door Syria, the kingdom of Jordan. The country is now home to roughly a third of Syria’s estimated million-and-a-half refugees.

The NewsHour’s foreign editor, Justin Kenny, traveled to the kingdom last week and produced this report.

This is Zaatari. It’s now second largest refugee camp on Earth. Just over a year ago, the site didn’t exist. Jordan’s King Abdullah now calls it his country’s fifth largest city. More than 120,000 Syrian refugees, including 60,000 children, are packed into the camp, living in tents and trailers on five square miles of dry and dusty ground, just 15 miles from their homeland’s border.

They often can hear the fighting between the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel Free Syrian Army. The refugees are out of the war zone, but they face plenty of new challenges.

NADIA RAJA, Refugee: My children have all been sick for 20 days now.

RAY SUAREZ: 25-year-old Nadia Raja and her five children arrived from Syria five weeks ago.

NADIA RAJA: They have fevers. They are suffering from the hot weather, the polluted water, and from their situation in general in the camps because of the heat.

RAY SUAREZ: A clean tent didn’t protect the family from Zaatari’s fly infestation. To say that life in the camp is hard is an understatement by nearly any definition. In the winter, residents endure snowstorms and flooding. In the summer, they struggle to survive temperatures that shoot above 100 degrees Fahrenheit with only limited water and no electricity.

Members of the international aid community say they’re straining to keep up with the ballooning humanitarian crisis.

ANDREW HARPER, Representative to Jordan, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: I don’t think you can think it could get any worse, but it does every night.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Harper is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative to Jordan. His organization oversees the camp in coordination with the Jordanian government and many other international humanitarian organizations.

ANDREW HARPER: There’s over 500,000 Syrians have come through since March last year, anywhere up to 3,000 to 4,000 per night, which basically means 1,000 families. And this means 1,000 families with women and children who come across with nothing, and we have to provide everything for them. It’s — we have to provide the tents, the food, the water, the health facilities, the protection.

RAY SUAREZ: A constant stream of aid trucks, nearly 500 per day, according to UNHCR, drop off supplies, including water. There are well-organized distribution centers and medical facilities and schools in the camp.

Despite that, residents said, they don’t have enough to eat, clean water to drink, or adequate medical care. Only 20 percent of Zaatari’s children attend classes in the camp.

10-year-old Hanin Hariri fled to Jordan with her family 10 months ago:

HANIN HARIRI, Refugee: We don’t do anything. We sit in the tents all the time. We don’t play anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: 20-year-old Abdul Mounim Droubi works at a bakery in the camp’s makeshift market. Unlike many others, he is able to earn meager wages. He still says, however, he’d rather go home to war than continue living as a refugee in Zaatari.

ABDUL MOUNIM DROUBI, Refugee: It’s better to die there, actually, because here you would die from hunger.

RAY SUAREZ: Many Syrian refugees apparently feel the same way. The Jordanian government announced this week 60,000 of them have returned home.

Despite the exodus, more refugees continue to pour into the Hashemite kingdom every day, and this has put an enormous strain on Jordan. It’s a relatively poor country that already hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Iraq war and more than two million Palestinian refugees who have come in various waves over the past 65 years.

Last week, the country took out a $150 million dollars World Bank loan to deal with the refugee crisis, and King Abdullah made a plea for help at a World Economic Forum.

KING ABDULLAH II, Jordan: Our Jordanian population is now hosting 10 percent of its size in Syrian refugees, and this may double by year-end. The Jordanians are generously sharing scarce water and other resources. For host countries like us and Lebanon, for displaced and vulnerable Syrians, both inside and outside their country, increased humanitarian assistance from the global community is vital.

RAY SUAREZ: Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, is now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MARWAN MUASHER, Vice President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: We are, I think, coming to the limit of the situation today. You cannot, under any circumstances, deal with 20 percent overnight of your population coming to the country. The economy is already suffering, even without the Syrian crisis, from at least a 12 percent budget deficit. Water is scarce and has been scarce throughout Jordan’s history. The infrastructure, of course, cannot — cannot just absorb all these people.

RAY SUAREZ: Nowhere is the impact on Jordan’s own population more apparent than in the north. Most of the country’s 500,000 Syrian refugees live outside camps and many have settled in places like Ramtha on the Syrian border. The city depended on cross-border trade with its sister city, Daraa. That trade is nonexistent today, and Ramtha’s population has surged with refugees. The cost of rent, food, and water are up; employment and wages are down.

Jordanian Ali Zoubi attempts to eke out a living by working at various businesses owned by relatives in Ramtha, including in his uncle’s shoe store.

ALI ZOUBI, Jordan: I feel bad for the Syrians. They had to all leave their homes. I’m not blaming them. They were forced to come here. They lost family members, brothers and sisters. But with Jordanians, things are bad, too. Jordan is a poor country and the economic conditions are bad.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk to Syrian refugees or Jordanians, and it’s tough to find people who expect a political solution, instead of more war. Virtually all the refugees interviewed supported arming the opposition.

The Jordanian government, however, has publicly said it is against providing arms to the Free Syrian Army.

MARWAN MUASHER: Arming the opposition so far is still a problematic issue. It’s not clear that arming the opposition is going to lead to a political process that would end the conflict. It’s not clear that arming the opposition is going to lead to a reversal of the military situation on the ground.

And in a country such as Jordan, a neighbor to Syria, Jordan of course is very afraid that it would be seen as interfering in the internal issues of a neighbor state. And it is Jordan’s belief that is the Syrians themselves who have to decide.

RAY SUAREZ: Back at Zaatari, there are tough decisions to be made, says Andrew Harper, including cutting back water and food rations, as the conflict drags on. Harper thinks it may last a long while.

ANDREW HARPER: There’s no one can give me one positive indicator from Syria that this is going to be resolved any time soon, whether it be one year, two years or beyond that.

Whenever people sort of delay a meeting for a month, then it probably means another 6,000 dead in Syria. It probably means another 40,000, 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 refugees. So, the bureaucratic timeline doesn’t meet the humanitarian timeline, nor the political imperative is, we do not — we do not see it as being — demonstrating the necessary urgency or importance that these people demand.

RAY SUAREZ: Nadia Raja says she has no idea how long she and her family will remain refugees.

NADIA RAJA: We don’t talk about it. It’s hard to know. There’s no electricity. There’s no TV. We don’t know what’s going on in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: She and the others hold out varying degrees of hope of ever returning to Syria. Until that day comes, if it comes, they share the hope the world won’t forget about them.