Syrian refugees creating pressure in Jordan's cities

Jordan's teeming Zaatari camp has become emblematic of the sheer number of Syrian refugees flooding into this country. But the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan live not in camps but mixed in with local communities, and that's where you find signs that the patience of the Jordanian people is beginning to fray.

Jordanian government reports that the country currently houses 1 million Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees swamp Jordan

9 years ago
Duration 5:39
Over one million displaced Syrians flood country of six million

The most enduring images of the Syrian refugee crisis here in Jordan are most certainly those from the Zaatari camp, just 12 kilometres from the Syrian border, which is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world.

Muted-red sands shift along with the ebb and flow of new arrivals, sometimes threatening to cover their prefab trailers and tents completely.

It is, of course, the perfect metaphor for the displaced people trying to cope with an altered universe and the slow realization that this might be their reality for some time to come.

But as with most things in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, appearances can be deceiving.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in this country live not in camps but mixed in with local communities — and it’s there that you find signs that the patience of the Jordanian people is beginning to fray.

There are altogether over one million Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to Mohammad al-Momani, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs.

That’s a lot in a country of just over six million people. The strain on a country poor in resources has been enormous. 

"Think of the water scarcity in Jordan and how much we are enduring, the pressure of providing water to the refugee camps," said al-Momani. He listed off other problems: inflation, housing and employment.

"Economically, it’s affected us very much," said a retired policeman in downtown Amman. "Many Syrians are taking the jobs of Jordanians."

Economic impact in cities

Most refugees are desperate enough to work for wages well below the average, although the store owners and construction companies employing them deny it.

We met a young man working at a bakery in East Amman too afraid to talk about his wages with his employer looking on. Twenty six years old and originally from the al Midan district of Damascus, he bribed his way out of Syria a year ago, along with his heavily pregnant wife.

"Believe me, there are so many Syrians in this country, I see more Syrians than Jordanians," he said. "And I can understand the pressures we’ve brought in, but we’re also under a lot of pressure."

This situation manifests itself in a kind of mutual guilt: Syrians don’t want to complain in a country that’s taken them in, while Jordanians don’t want to appear to resent those in need, but are nonetheless worried about their own futures.

And there is much to worry about. Most Jordanians I’ve spoken with are deeply uneasy over the prospect of a U.S. strike against its neighbour and what it might mean, not just for Jordan, but the Middle East.

"We should be on a neutral stance because another war, a strike, is going to be horrible for the region," said one man after midday prayers. "It’s going to increase the number of refugees."

"When they attack Syria, they don’t attack Assad only," said another man. "They’re going to kill lot of [civilians]."

Jordan’s King Abdullah – like his father Hussein before him – has maintained close ties with Washington, the kingdom priding itself on its image as a small wedge of stability in a roiling neighbourhood. Jordan is one of only two Arab countries to have signed a peace agreement with Israel. The other is Egypt, which is preoccupied with its own troubles these days.

Struggling to contain homegrown militants

Despite Jordan’s projected image of stability, there is, as ever, another reality here. The country is struggling to contain home-grown jihadists, hundreds of whom have joined militant Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda and fighting to bring down Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

"We have many Jordanians fighting in Syria," said Musa Shteiwi, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

"This has always been a problem for us. In the past, you know, people fought in Iraq and then came back and, you know, tried to do military operations in Jordan."

One of Osama bin Laden’s most notorious disciples was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who claimed responsibility for two hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. He was later killed by U.S. forces in Iraq.

The prospect of a post-Assad government run by militant Islamists is a major worry for Jordan. Jordanians say they fear a U.S. strike against Syria could make their country even more of a target for militants.

"There are many sleeper cells that will start operating and they will affect the security of the country," said restaurant owner Abdel Aziz Tantour.

Jordan’s army has asked the United States to help with surveillance along the kingdom’s 375-kilometre-long border with Syria.

A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. Zaatari is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

An army report released in Amman over the weekend said that the trafficking of "items and persons" has increased over the past month.

The U.S. is already providing Jordan with Patriot missiles along its northern border. There are American F-16s in the country, too, but the government emphasizes they are for defense purposes only.

'We will cooperate with the U.S.'

King Abdullah has said Jordanian soil will not be used to launch an attack against its neighbour. But there are shades of grey. 

"We cannot disassociate ourselves from this conflict. It’s forced upon us, more or less, and so the country has to prepare and the U.S. is an ally and in that sense we will cooperate with the U.S.," said Shteiwi of the Centre for Strategic Studies.

The government has denied reports that Jordan is helping CIA agents train hand-picked rebels from the Free Syrian Army and sending them back into Syria.

"Absolutely not," was the reply when I asked a government spokesman, but it’s not something Amman would likely admit to, though the rumours persist.

Ultimately, Jordan’s rulers are left walking a very narrow path between their own interests, the expectations of their Washington allies and the fears voiced by their own people that they’re about to get dragged into a war not of their making.

Jordan is already a country of refugees, having played host to exiles from other Middle Eastern conflicts, including Lebanon and Iraq. More than half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin.

Government minister Mohammed al-Momani calls this state of affairs both Jordan’s destiny and the "tax of being a safe and secure country in a very unstable region."

If you can call Jordan stable. The only certainty in this country these days is that there will be more refugees, in the camps and in the streets of its towns and cities.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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