In a cramped radio studio in central Amman, a team of journalists is preparing to broadcast the lunchtime news bulletin. The first item is about human trafficking and underage marriage among Syrian refugees in Jordan. Next up is an interview with the mayor of Ramtha, a Jordanian border town whose economy has been paralysed by the war raging in Syria. And finally a listener phones in to complain about begging by Syrians in the northern city of Mafraq.
This familiar mix represents another day in the life of Suriyoun Baynana (Syrians Among Us), a programme designed to help one small Arab country cope with the enormous strain caused by the crisis ravaging its larger neighbour.
Hosted by Radio Balad, a community radio network, it covers the refugee story while trying to counter hostility towards the million-plus Syrians who have fled to Jordan since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad erupted in 2011.
The existence of the programme is itself a rare bit of good news in the general gloom about Syria. Hazem al-Mazouni, a democracy activist in Hama before he escaped, now reports on the lives of his fellow countrymen in exile even as the Jordanian authorities implement tougher policies. Right now his concern is about thousands of refugees who are stranded in no man’s land near a remote desert border post, facing snakes, scorpions and unbearable uncertainty about the future.
“They are having to manage on one 200ml bottle of water a day,” Mazouni says. “Eight people have died there in the last two months, and one of them was a seven-year-old child.”
Radio Balad has no shortage of news. “People here are surprised to hear about how hard the situation is for the Syrian refugees,” says Doha Barqawi, a Jordanian editor. “We have a lot of reports about violence against women and children and problems in schools. It’s all bad.”
The UNHCR records 640,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, though the government says the total number of Syrians is double that. The costs are huge for a poor country that is short of water, faces crippling energy costs and suffers the highest youth unemployment in the Arab world. Many schools are operating double shifts to accommodate Syrian children. Health services are overwhelmed.
Syrians, many of them highly skilled, are prepared to work for lower wages than Jordanians and even Egyptian guest workers. Rents and prices have risen astronomically. Unhappiness, frustration and anger are heard everywhere. “We have received the lower end of Syrian society,” complains a middle-class Palestinian. “In Arabic we say a fish stinks after three days. But this could go on for years.”
The Syrians are the third big wave of refugees to enter Jordan since independence in 1946. First came the Palestinians – those who lost their homes when Israel was created in 1948, and a second exodus in the wake of the 1967 war. Iraqis arrived in 1991 and again in 2003. The uprising against Assad opened another massively disruptive chapter. “The problem with Jordan,’” an Amman-based diplomat says drily, “is that refugees do tend to stay.”
Jordan has been widely praised for its efforts – and received substantial cash flows to help it cope – but its patience is clearly running out. Lebanon, which has taken in 1.2 million Syrians, announced this month that it was barring entry to all but “exceptional” cases. The Jordanian government insists its border remains open. But a marked change has taken place in the last few weeks. The UNHCR recorded 6,000 refugees in September and just 250 in November. “The numbers have petered out,” says one official. “They have slowed from a trickle to almost nothing.”
Security concerns explain why. For the first two years of the crisis, most Syrians entering Jordan came from central and southern Syria, especially the Dera’a area. In recent months the two westernmost border crossings were closed, so newer arrivals came from further north and east, from around Aleppo, Hassake and Deir el-Zor – partially or wholly under the control of the Islamic State.
“In the end the security imperative is overwhelming the humanitarian arguments,” says Andrew Harper, head of the UNHCR’s busy office in Amman. The irony is that the UNHCR now has spare capacity in a new camp near Azraq, built when the first one at Zaatari was full.
Jordanian officials bristle at criticism, arguing that EU countries are in no position to preach about refugee policy when they have just ended support for the Mare Nostrum operation to rescue migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. “Do we have to prove our credentials?” asks Mohammed al-Momani, the government’s chief spokesman. “We are doing more than any other country in the world.”
Rumours abound of Jordan working with the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army to keep refugees away from the border. Officials in Amman point out that emergency food deliveries by the UN, now being made without the agreement of the Syrian government, are relieving pressure. Evidence is accumulating of efforts by the Jordanian authorities to force Syrians to move from private accommodation into camps or face deportation.
Human Rights Watch said in late November that the Jordanian authorities had forcibly deported vulnerable Syrian refugees back to Syria, in violation of Jordan’s international obligations. Last week it was reported that medical care was being denied to refugees. The issue is certain to come up in talks between King Abdullah and Barack Obama in Washington this week.
“Jordan has done far more than anyone could have possibly expected a small state to do,” the UNHCR’s Harper says. “It has done an outstanding job, but there are limits to its capacity. If we are struggling in 2014 to find the resources, where will we be in 2015 and 2016 and beyond? No one has a timeline for this conflic