Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tribalism, Trust, and Terrorism – the intricacy of refugee assistance in Jordan

A Syrian boy waves the revolutionary flag at the June 21, 2012 protests in front of the Syrian Embassy in Amman, Jordan

It is nearly impossible to spend a few weeks in Amman without seeing a protest. Stumbling upon one is especially likely on Fridays, but many of those found do not fit the bill of a typical “Arab Spring” protest. While Jordanians continue to fight for reform and against corruption of their monarchy, other protests consist of both Jordanians and Syrian refugees against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Off the main streets and into the refugee camps, protests erupt over conditions of the camp's housing facilities, many of which are tents that lack protection from the dangers of the desert. Dissatisfaction with housing led to other actions as well, such as an episode of Syrian refugees attempting to tear down a camp fence to flee harsh conditions.

The rate of influx is astounding. The Jordanian kingdom’s foreign minister officially announced the presence of 137,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan last month, and less than one month later to numbers surpassing 150,000. Yet, the refugee issue is not as simple as listing numbers. The refugees face a number of challenges within Jordanian borders, some more than others. Syrians without family in Jordan are at an exceptional disadvantage. Upon illegally entering Jordan, Syrians are funneled into holding facilities. There can be a lengthy stay in the compound while security checks are run and the only way to ensure release from the compound is to find a Jordanian sponsor who will sign a hefty guarantee that takes responsibility for the refugee's actions within the kingdom. This is not easy to do and the process often involves risks and bribes.

In addition, family ties give some Syrians a higher likelihood of gaining sponsorship. There are tribal and family ties than overlap the Jordanian-Syrian border. At the establishment of the border, some families were divided, lending refugees from a divided family or tribe to more support within Jordan. Most of the displaced Syrians in Ramtha are living with relatives or in-laws. Many of these refugees hail from Daraa in Syria and have much easier times finding sponsors to vouch for their activities in Jordan than those arriving from Homes, Idlib, and DamascusAnother option is that the government withholds their documents as a condition for release.

Although not officially confirmed, there is suspicion that discrimination against certain refugees is also an issue for Palestinian refugees try to pass the border. Former Palestinian refugee camps located in Syria are also in dangerous territory, but with the possibility of the refugee influx fueling the ethnic conflict between Palestinians in Jordan and east-bank Jordanians, the government is hesitant to take in more Palestinian refugees. In addition, the ability to leave holding facilities after obtaining a Jordanian sponsor does not apply to Palestinian refugees. Claims are made that Palestinians seeking a safe haven are denied at the border as well.

While meeting with organizations in Jordan that focus on collecting transporting donations among other duties, I learned that even some organizations assisting new refugees are origin- or ethnic-specific, targeting only certain types of refugees and funneling resources to particular people. Coordination of services and distribution between organizations is also lacking, leading to confusion for both the refugees and the NGO's themselves.

As if the turmoil within the camp fences is not enough, Jordan’s foreign policy with Syria is becoming more strained than usual, particularly after the two countries first exchange of fire. In addition, the immeasurable movement of people is having a striking effect on Jordan’s economy and security.

The government prefers to place people in concrete buildings instead of tents to avoid portraying assistance to Syrian resisters and to maintain a “humanitarian aid” perception, although this is proving difficult. While Syrian refugee camps are developing, security risks continue to increase. The Jordanian foreign minister announced the government's concern about Syria holding and possibly using chemical weapons while its government is in such a fragile state. Considering Jordan's large Syrian refugee population that is unevenly distributed into northern cities and refugee communities, fear of retribution for assisting the resistance movement or Jordan's foreign policy position is not taken lightly. Opening additional but necessary holding centers could be confused as supporting revolutionaries instead of as a humanitarian aid project and thus be subject to attack. 

While no major attacks have taken place, the fears may be warranted. For example, in April 2012, Jordanian authorities allegedly stifled an attempt to poison the water supply at Al Bashabsheh. The Jordanian government foiled a number of plans of suspected Syrian spies and attempts to smuggle weapons. To protect against such attempts, the holding centers run background checks on all Syrians to ensure that Assad-supporters do not infiltrate into Jordan to track down the Syrian opposition or as sleeper-cells poised to disturb the Jordanian peace

Not only is it difficult to house the refugees while processing their entry and security checks, but the refugees put stress on the economy afterward as well. Rental prices have risen quickly because of Syrian refugees. With the new refugees unevenly distributed across the country, the northern region face housing shortages and rising prices.

While the country is no stranger to displaced persons, the speed of the movement at such a vulnerable time for the monarchy as well as the economic and political consequences make this an issue that cannot be ignored by the Jordanian government. Worse off are the displaced Syrians attempting to live in a resource-scarce country with a shaky foundation and fragile political position. And yet there is no end in sight for either party.

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