As refugee crisis lingers, Jordan feels the pinch

Friday 05/02/2016
A boy at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, on January 18th.

Amman - Jordan is literally “breaking bread” with the Syrian refu­gees it hosts, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour says.

The kingdom put its schools and health clinics at the disposal of the Syrians, who have been taking jobs, which Jordanians complain could be theirs. Social welfare agen­cies spend 55% of their $80 million budget, which is usually disbursed fully on Jordanians, on Syrian refu­gees.

The Syrians also stretched Jor­dan’s meagre resources so thin that power outages have become fre­quent and water rationing more stringent.

Local communities can barely cope with the Syrian refugee influx. In Mafraq, a town straddling the northern Syrian border, many of the 85,000 residents complain that they are a minority on their own turf. Ma­fraq’s Syrian refugee population has swollen to 160,000.

Cash-strapped Jordan has spent $6.6 billion on refugees since they began to flow in at the start of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.

Jordan says it received little inter­national aid but no specific amount is disclosed.

The extra spending, primarily on a higher energy bill and the upkeep of four Syrian refugee camps, hiked Jordan’s budget deficit to unprec­edented levels and sent the country deep into debt.

Jordan’s deficit is estimated at $2.5 billion, at least five times more than the pre-2011 figures. Its for­eign debt is estimated at $30 billion, about triple the figure of 2010. And, although unemployment was offi­cially set at 13.8% in the last quarter of 2015, unofficial estimates put it at more than double.

“Today, we can see European countries struggling to deal with waves of asylum seekers, although Jordan receives similar numbers to the refugees arriving at some Euro­pean nations in one, or two days,” Jordanian Planning Minister Imad Fakhoury said.

“The problems will grow more costly as the refugee crisis lingers on, unless the international com­munity offered greater assistance,” Fakhoury said ahead of a Syria do­nor conference in London.

In unusually blunt comments on January 30th, Ensour insisted dur­ing a tour of a Jordan-based Syrian refugee camp that it will be “very, very difficult” to continue to ab­sorb Syrian refugees unless Jordan receives significant international economic aid and is granted easier access for its exports to European markets.

Pledges of some $9 billion were being sought at the London confer­ence for 2016 to alleviate the fallout from the Syrian civil war. Jordan wants the lion’s share.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says there are more than 635,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, the bulk of them living in local communities outside camps.

However, a recent census found that the Syrian refugee population was almost double at nearly 1.3 million. The number includes Syr­ians who arrived prior to the war in search of jobs, according to statistics department chief Qassem Zoubi.

The census, conducted in late 2015, said there were 9.5 million people living in Jordan, including 6.6 million citizens and 2.9 million foreigners, but details have yet to be announced. Syrians made up the largest group of foreigners but there are also some 300,000 Iraqi refu­gees.

There was no figure available im­mediately for the number of Pales­tinian refugees and their descend­ants who fled or were forced out of their homes in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The United Nations says there are nearly 2.1 million Palestinian ref­ugees in Jordan, most of them with full citizenship.