Jordan's Quiet Emergency

How much longer can the kingdom support a million refugees?
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A group of Palestinian refugees gathered around a large Jordanian flag (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan—When the adhan sounds, a sigh of relief ripples across the room. The call to prayer marks the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting and the go-ahead for seven disabled children, six volunteers, one grandmother, and two supervisors, all from Syria, to dig into the mountain of McDonald’s in front of them.

Souad, the grandmother, is in a wheelchair next to me. At 72 years old, she’s the only adult patient in this place, a physical rehabilitation center for Syrian refugee amputees.

Sahateen,” I smile at Souad, trying to get her to eat. She pulls the corners of her mouth taut, looking down at the tray balanced across her knees, just above where the rest of her legs used to be.

“Last year I had Ramadan with my grandsons,” Souad says, picking at a piece of lettuce peeled from inside her Big Mac. “They were the same age as these children.” Across the room, five-year-old Hammoudeh yelps at a girl flicking date pits at him. “I had two daughters and three grandsons,” Souad says. “We were trying to get back to Damascus when the bomb hit our car.” She rips the lettuce into little pieces, dropping them back onto the tray. “I don’t know why they didn’t get out. Why am I here? Why did I survive alone?”

***

Jordan has a reputation for being the Middle East’s island of peace. Geopolitically, it is—amid ISIS’s spread across Iraq, Syria’s devastation, and the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Hashemite Kingdom feels quiet. Crises don’t happen in Jordan, the narrative goes—that’s why it’s home to more than a million refugees.

Every few weeks, a fresh bout of violence afflicts the Levant, and media attention flits to Jordan. What if Jordan falls next? Could extremists take control of the country? Then the moment passes and the speculation subsides.

But people like Souad, who fled from destruction just a few hours’ drive in any direction from Amman, are well aware that a crisis doesn’t end when its victims cross a border. It just shifts shape, the loud onslaught of extremists and rockets giving way to a muted, daily fight against despair.

Jordan’s real crisis is not the threat of encroaching extremism, but the grinding weight of hosting victims from the region’s various humanitarian emergencies. The technical name for this is a “protracted refugee crisis”—a burden that Jordan uniquely bears as host to more than a million refugees and asylum seekers from surrounding conflicts, according to government numbers. Since 2011, Jordan’s 6.3 million people have taken on roughly an additional 600,000 Syrians, who join about 29,000 Iraqis and some 4,000 refugees from Sudan, Somalia, and other countries, along with thousands more who remain unregistered with UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. If this were the United States, it would be as if Canada’s entire population moved in virtually at once.

“The international humanitarian system is really under unprecedented strain at the moment,” says Jeff Crisp, a former UNHCR official who now works at Refugees International. He lists the past year’s blitz of crises: the Philippines, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria. “Just a few weeks ago we said if we had one new major emergency, the system wouldn’t be able to cope—and now we’ve got Iraq.”

From a humanitarian perspective, the refugee crisis is one of survival. From a human perspective, it’s one of purpose. Refugees in Jordan are protected by UNHCR’s mandate, which means they can exist without fear of non-refoulement, or being sent back to their conflict-torn countries. They also get access to food, water, shelter, and basic medical services, at least in the camps. But what happens when immediate relief morphs into long-term sustenance, spilling out of the camps and into the cities?

“People, even as refugees, still want and need to have some agency over how they cope and manage their lives,” says Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. That’s why most don’t linger long in refugee camps. Syrians crossing the border are immediately registered and brought to either the Zaatari or Azraq camp. But more than 80 percent of Syrians then leave, moving to urban areas along with non-Syrian refugees.

Outside the camps, Syrians receive a set monthly amount in food coupons and access to free primary health care. Non-Syrians get medical subsidies and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis for other assistance. No one is allowed to work, but they do anyway, risking detention to make informal incomes. Walking around Amman, you see Syrians manning coffee stands, Iraqis working in restaurants, and Sudanese in construction uniforms. Former engineers and lawyers wash cars and sweep streets—on days when they’re lucky enough to get hired. The strain of refugee existence isn’t just that your life and home were destroyed by war, but also that after that, you’re forced into indefinite victimhood. Suddenly you are and must remain passive, dependent—your hands tied no matter how capable they are.

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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