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.