Evidence of the three-year-old Syrian crisis being a trans-border dilemma can be best seen in the resource-poor Jordan that is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees.
Experts see in the Syrian crisis the biggest challenges facing Jordan’s economy, security and even existence thus reemphasizing the long-held perception about Jordan as always inheriting burdens from the outside.
In a report published on March 14, the UNHCR described Syria as “the world's leading country of forced displacement, with more than 9 million of its people uprooted from their homes.”
It added: “As of today, 2,563,434 Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries or are awaiting registration. With displacement inside Syria having reached more than 6.5 million, the number of people in flight internally and externally exceeds 40 per cent of Syria's pre-conflict population. At least half of the displaced are children.”
According to the latest UNHCR figures, the total number of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan has reached 584,600 since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.
Delivering a lecture at the University of Jordan recently, Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative to Jordan has put the total number of registered Syrian refugees in the kingdom as exceeding 600,000 anyway, expecting more than 20,000 Syrians to cross into Jordan this year.
Official figures in Jordan always account for the number of non-registered Syrians living outside the three refugee camps who, along with the 600,000 registered ones, stand at around 1.2 million. The Zaatari refugee camp on the northern border with Syria is the kingdom’s fourth largest city.
The Jordanian official rhetoric on the Syrian refugee crisis has been always marked with dismay and with an appeal to the international community to increase its assistance to the resource-limited kingdom to cope with the increasing number of Syrian refugees.
In several meetings with world leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan has expressed concerns over his kingdom’s burdens resulting from hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, warning that the continuation of the refugee influx to Jordan will lead to depletion of its already scare natural resources.
Open border policy
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Jordan has been adopting the “open border” policy towards Syrians seeking refuge in its territories but there has been always “shy remarks” by Jordanian officials that their country’s patience has limits.
I once accompanied Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in a tour to the northern regions on the borders with Syria, where journalists had the opportunity to meet with the border guards and with the Syrian refugees who had just arrived into the kingdom. It was in April 2013.
At the time, Judeh said that “Jordan is bearing the burdens of Syria’s unrest on behalf of the world, having received more than 485,000 Syrian refugees since March 2011,” renewing an appeal to the international community to help alleviate the economic and social burdens resulting from the continuously rising number of Syrians fleeing violence in their war-torn country to safety.
In response to the international community’s inability to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, there have been “desperate and angry” voices inside the Jordanian parliament calling for the closure of borders with Syria to prevent any security and economic consequences on their already-concerned country.
Responding to a question on why Jordan is still adopting the open border policy with Syrians despite its increasing burdens and the accompanying security challenges, King Abdullah responded during a joint presser with the U.S. President Barack Obama in Amman by saying, “We simply can’t say no to anyone seeking safe haven in our country.”
Not to be taken for granted
In his lecture, Harper said that “although the kingdom is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has been one of the most generous countries in hosting refugees throughout the years out of a cultural tradition,” warning however that “Jordan should not be taken for granted and forgotten. The international community has provided support, but it does not match the needs.”
On the economic impact of the Syrian refugees on Jordan, Khalid Wazani, a veteran Jordanian economist, who is to publish next month a study on the impact of the Syrian crisis on Jordan, has been also quoted as saying that the direct cost on the budget is $3,500 per year for each refugee.
Wazani added that this is a huge burden on the state budget, which is expected to suffer a $2.32 billion deficit in 2014.
He also noted that the refugee burden places pressure on education, health facilities and infrastructure, including water and sanitation, in addition to exacerbating unemployment with Syrians taking over Jordanians' jobs.
As was said in the UNHCR report, “Jordan is reeling under the refugee presence, estimating the related cost at more than $1.7 billion so far. In this resource-poor country, the government is paying hundreds of millions worth of additional subsidies to ensure refugees have access to affordable water, bread, gas and electricity. The surge in demand for health care has led to a shortage of medicines, and especially in northern Jordan there is less drinking water available for Jordanians and refugees.”
Risky security concerns
However, for analysts and political commentators, the threat posed by the Syrian crisis on Jordan exceeds the economic dimension to more risky security, political and demographic considerations.
“Demographically, the Syrian crisis is a real risk to Jordan,” said Amer Sabaileh, a political commentator in remarks to Al Arabiya News, citing the geographic closeness between Jordan and Syria and the problems of “civic state and identity” already existing in the kingdom.
“Northern Jordan is geographically part of the Houran Plains that penetrate into all the southern parts of Syrian, including all Daraa [the birthplace of the Syrian revolution], and due to tribal connections between Jordanians and Syrians in the two sides of Houran plains, there will be definitely a borrowed influence,” Sabaileh said.
Many Jordanian veteran politicians, some of them ex-premiers, have once warned against the demographic threat the Syrian crisis poses on Jordan, saying that with the non-stop influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan and with little possibility of an immediate solution to the Syrian crisis, Syrians in Jordan would outnumber the Jordanians.
“There is also another risk related to Jordan being transformed into an inseparable component of the Syrian crisis,” Sabaileh said, adding that “the too much incorporation of Jordan into Syria would make the kingdom’s political scene linked in a way or another to the Syrian regime’s political maneuvering in the ongoing crisis.” In other words, Sabaileh said, “Jordan is being kept like this to be used as a threat by the Syrian regime to the international community.”
Sabaileh also mentioned other threats related to security and terrorism
Jordan is home to thousands of Salafist Takfirists with hundreds of them are said to be joining the radical groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusrah and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Recently, Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced a citizen to five years in prison for alleged ties to Syrian jihadist groups, the latest in a series of prison sentences for Jordanians accused of supporting armed Islamist factions in the country.
Threats to Lebanon
On the nature of the political threat posed by the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, Sabaileh said, “Lebanon is a different story.”
According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon is approaching 1 million and could grow to 1.6 million at the end of 2014 if current trends continue.
“Lebanon already has the highest per capita concentration of refugees of any country in recent history, with nearly 230 registered Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese, the report said, adding, “That is more than 70 times as many refugees per inhabitants as in France, and 280 times as many as in the United States. The number of registered Syrian refugees hosted in Lebanon would be equivalent to nearly 19 million refugees in Germany and over 73 million in the United States,” the report said.
Sabaileh said: “In Lebanon, the Syrian crisis means primarily the security concern as well as of course the resulting economic burdens,” adding that the political relationship between Syria and Lebanon has been always “problematic and so interconnected and nothing has changed much even after March 2011.”
However, one major reason behind Jordan maintaining its security and stability amidst a turbulent region is the Syrian crisis itself. For many observers, Jordanians’ unwillingness to sacrifice the security and stability of their country for the sake of reform-related matters was the primary reason behind their kingdom escaping the Arab Spring uprisings.
“Jordanians simply are unwilling to see their country becoming like Syria, Egypt and Libya,” said a Jordanian ex-minister who preferred to remain unnamed.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2