ZAATARI, JORDAN (MintPress) - Overwhelmed by waves of thousands of Syrian refugees escaping over the border from 23 months of civil war at home, Jordan says it is staggering from an added recent upsurge and warned that unless aid comes quickly, it can’t continue to bear the burden.
Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Jafaar Hassan said the resource-barren kingdom’s water, electricity, health and education sectors are becoming severely taxed with daily arrivals averaging between nearly 1,500 to 3,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the year.
Hassan recently warned that unless emergency foreign aid is made available, Jordan would not be able to continue to host increasing numbers of Syrian refugees.
A mere 85 miles separates Jordan’s common border with Syria and the Syrian capital, Damascus, which may explain why Jordan has sought to “stay out” of the crisis has much as possible.
While Jordan does host the highest-level political defector from Syria, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, it has made sure that he is vocally restrained on developments in his homeland. High-level military and police defectors stay in heavily-guarded compounds for their protection.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has also underscored the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, maintaining that Syria’s territorial integrity and unity must be upheld.
Historically, Jordan has provided a safe haven for people escaping the region’s numerous conflicts. It still hosts about half a million Iraqi refugees who fled both the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which ousted President Saddam Hussein, and the 1991 Gulf War. At the height of sectarian violence which ravaged Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees sought safety in neighboring Jordan.
Roughly half of Jordan’s 6.5 million inhabitants are of Palestinian origin and their descendants, whose families fled successive wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967. More than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees live in the Hashemite kingdom.
Jordan currently houses 360,000 Syrians, almost half of the 750,000 displaced Syrians the United Nations says are in the region. Some, but not all, have registered with the U.N. refugee agency. Most live outside the country’s Zaatari camp in mainly northern border communities, often with three families sharing one apartment. Another estimated 2.5 million Syrians are internally displaced in the conflict-ridden country.
Those who live in the communities depend on charity handouts, and a few are able to work illegally.
The Zaatari camp teams with new arrivals who line up against a wire fence for registration with the U.N. refugee agency, the weariness of the long journey evident on their faces.
The desert facility, near Jordan’s northern border with Syria, is one of the largest camps for Syrian refugees in the Middle East. It’s been a particularly tough place this winter as icy temperatures and flooding made some parts of the camp uninhabitable. Sporadic rioting has erupted over the camp’s harsh conditions.
“Some whose tents flooded broke into the camp’s school because they were looking for shelter somewhere warm,” said Dominque Hyde, UNICEF’s representative to Jordan. UNICEF said these refugees were supplied with alternate housing so the school program, on a winter break, could resume.
A 70-year-old businessman, the owner of four houses back in Syria, seemed an unlikely candidate to become a refugee in the tent camp.
But Abu Mohamed, like most refugees interviewed at Zaatari, declined to give his real name because he feared retaliation against relatives still living in Syria, and said he was forced to leave an area in nearby Daraa, where the Syrian revolution began, after his son was shot by government snipers.
“He had just finished work and bought bread from the bakery, when snipers on the roof above shot him several times in both legs,” said the man, whose eyes were red and swollen from constant crying. “No one helped to get him to a hospital and he bled to death.”
Abu Mohamed fled with 24 members of his family to Jordan, saying it was impossible to remain in Syria after this tragedy.
“It’s not just me. All Syrians have gone through this nightmare, many with even greater losses,” he said, weeping as he spoke.
An international donors conference last month in Kuwait raised more than $1.5 billion the U.N. requested in immediate aid for displaced Syrians to cover the coming months. Of that sum, $500 million was allocated for Jordan.
But Planning Minister Hassan said that money is for the U.N.-run programs in Jordan, although a portion could meet the needs of government education and health sectors in some areas.
He said the cost of taking in a rising number of Syrian refugees this year, including setting up and operating Zaatari and other planned refugee camps and government support, is estimated at $1 billion, about half of it direct costs on the treasury.
Hassan said Jordan had not yet drawn up a projected financing plan of $489 million in 2013, but it began approaching donors early this year for that purpose. He added that the Kuwait conference envisaged an allocation of $495 million to U.N. organizations for building additional refugee camps to hold 180,000 Syrians and to provide emergency aid during the first half of the year.
Jordan and the U.N. agencies are waiting for the promised aid to come through.
UNICEF’s Hyde warned that if it doesn’t come quickly, one of the first things to cut would be the protection of children. Zaatari is known as the “kid’s camp” became more than half of its residents are under the age of 18 and many have witnessed horrors, such as seeing loved ones killed or experienced atrocities, such as torture or rape.
“We’re seeing increasing numbers of families arrive as violence on the other side spikes,” Hyde said.
“Their access to commodities, health care and education are also becoming more of a challenge. Here at Zaatari there is a school, food, water, the basics,” she said.
“But all they really want in the end is to go back to Syria.”