Sasa Petricic: Jordan struggling with massive influx of Syrian refugees

Four months after he first visited Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, CBC's Sasa Petricic finds this desert safe zone for Syrians fleeing civil war has turned into a giant tent city with more than 80,000 residents. Jordan's minister of planning says it is "simply not possible" to accommodate the number of Syrians seeking refuge in his country.

Zaatari camp was designed for 60,000 refugees, but now has 85,000

Brahim Alrothani, who owned a clothing business in Daraa, Syria, fled with his family to neighbouring Jordan to escape the civil war in his home country. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

The first time I visited Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp last September, I remember thinking how arbitrary it seemed to fence off a piece of desert and declare it a safe zone for thousands of Syrians fleeing their homes.

It all seemed so temporary and makeshift: a cluster of tents in the middle of nowhere, a campground where people came to simply wait for things to get better. Zaatari was only a few weeks old then, and refugees were just trickling in.

Four months later, that "campground" has become a real tent city, with crowded old neighbourhoods, their tents shabby, and brand new subdivisions with neat rows of shelters, stretching almost to the horizon. There are shopping streets with falafel stands and cafés, barbershops and electronics stalls. There is one school and two more being built, though even that won’t be enough. More than half the population here is made up of children. UNICEF is drilling for water, since the system of trucking in millions of litres just isn’t adequate anymore.

Originally, the camp was designed for 60,000 refugees. It now has 85,000, and will be enlarged to take in 120,000 before new camps are built nearby.

Around the clock, there are long lines of tired new refugees pressed against the chain link, waiting to come in. Most come from Daraa, just across the border in Syria, where an uprising against the brutality of the regime of Bashar al-Assad 22 months ago spread and turned into today’s civil war. On many days, you can hear shooting and shelling across the border.

Refugees coming in droves

The mood in the lines is one of exasperation. Women yell at the guards, asking why they have to wait so long to be registered by the UNHCR, the United Nations agency in charge of running the camp. Older children play between the tires of construction trucks coming in and out of the gate. Young ones sleep. There are few men.

"We’ve come because the fighting got really bad. Really, really bad," says one young man in a blue tracksuit. "We waited for more than a year, but we couldn’t stay any longer."

Like many here, he won’t give his real name, because he’s afraid for relatives left behind, and for his own safety if he goes back.

The intensifying fighting has pushed new waves of refugees across the border into Jordan — as many as 50,000 arrived in January, between 2,000 and 7,000 every day. They still come in these numbers.

The UN says there are about 225,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan overall, about the same as in Lebanon. It’s part of an exodus the UN says is close to 750,000 people heading out of Syria in all directions. But with people moving in and out of Syria constantly, and with many who don’t bother to register with the UN, the numbers are almost certainly much higher.

Jordan's dilemma

The government of Jordan tells CBC News it figures there are 335,000 refugees in its country, 80 per cent of them outside the Zaatari camp, living in Amman or in smaller communities along the border. The children go to Jordanian schools and many of the families get government assistance like health care. Some of the refugees I have interviewed have come with severe injuries or illness.

Jordan’s minister of planning, Ja’afar Hassan, says if the conflict in Syria continues, and if refugees continue coming at the same pace — as he expects — there will be up to a million refugees in Jordan by the end of 2013. He calls that a crisis.

"There is no space in the Jordanian budget or in the Jordanian economy to be able to accommodate such significant numbers of refugees that would range at 10 per cent, if not more, of its own population. This is simply not possible," he says.

This week, international donors pledged $1.5-billion (including $25-million from Canada) to help all the countries hosting Syrian refugees cope. Almost a third of that will come to Jordan. Hassan says it’s much needed, but not enough. Most of that money, he says, will go to refugees in camps like Zaatari or those who are part of formal UN programs. Jordan will still be left caring for the rest, he says.

Cramped quarters

For refugees in the camp, daily life is the big preoccupation. Down one of the rows of new tents, I run into Brahim Alrothani. He’s well dressed and speaks very good English. He invites me into his new family home. His five children, also well dressed, huddle against the desert chill. There is a makeshift propane heater in the corner and a few rugs on the floor.

Alrothani used to own a clothing business in Daraa. His family lived a middle-class life before they fled and found themselves here — in the middle of nowhere.

"We left everything in Syria and came without anything. Just a little money," he tells me. "It’s a bad feeling, you know. I lose my home, I lose my business, I lose everything. And just in this space of three metres by two we live, seven persons."

One thing Alrothani didn’t lose, though, is his dignity. The family clings to a clean space, it plans to build a little addition for cooking with corrugated metal provided by the UN and the children will go to school as soon as possible. And guests will be honoured the way they would be back in the family home in Daraa.

In the middle of all the dust, the mud and the basic living, his wife appears with a silver tray. Coffee for us, in delicate glass cups. "We brought it from Syria," he says. "We just had to."

When will Alrothani go home? When the fighting ends, not before, he says.

Hopefully that will be by summer, when the desert turns scorching hot and the money runs out, and when the camp population hits 120,000.

"Insha'Allah," he says, with a smile. God willing.