Refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon worsens

20 February 2013

As of today, 278,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Jordan, and 295,000 have crossed into Lebanon, according to UNHCR.

According to Jordan’s government, the number is much higher. They estimate that they are hosting more than 368,000 out of a total of 787,000 Syrian refugees displaced in the region.

The rate of arrivals is accelerating. The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan has tripled from around 100,000 in September. There are reports that as many as 3,000-4,000 are arriving every day in Jordan alone.

UN agencies are spending more than $1m a day providing assistance to refugees, and 55 NGOs are operating under a framework drawn up by the UN.

Aid falling short

But aid provision is falling drastically short. At a conference in Kuwait last month, international donors pledged to provide $1.5bn in aid for Syrian refugees, but UNHCR says that to date it has not received any of this money.

The influx of refugees is putting enormous pressure on host governments. In December, the UN envoy for Syria was quoted in the press as saying that the influx of Syrian refugees could “break” Lebanon and Jordan.

One of the largest net importers of energy in the Middle East, Jordan’s economic balance has always been fragile. High oil prices, problems with gas supplies from Egypt, and a political crisis on its doorstep in Syria have tipped the balance.

Even before the refugee crisis, Jordan was reliant on loans. In recent weeks, the UAE has pledged a loan of $1bn. The IMF is providing $2bn in return for commitments to cut public debt, which in itself is having a significant social cost.

Unemployment is already high, the average wage is poor, and the cost of living is rising. With the state power company bearing the brunt of austerity measures, the price of power for local consumers is expected to rise 40% between 2014 and 2017, and power outages will become more frequent.

Jordan has a history of welcoming refugees. It already hosts an estimated 450,000 Iraqi refugees, and almost 2 million Palestinian refugees – out of a total population of just over 6 million.

The government has pledged in recent days to keep the border open to Syrian refugees. But it has also appealed to the international community, saying that its economy cannot take the additional strain.

Social tensions

The influx of refugees risks social tension too. Although historically refugees have been welcomed in Jordan more than anywhere else in the region, there is still resentment at the cost of providing for non-Jordanian nationals. As thousands more refugees arrive every day, there is a risk that this could boil over.

This risk is exacerbated by the spread of Syrian refugees into Jordan’s towns. The Za’atari camp near the Syrian border hosts 90,000 refugees, but is already overwhelmed. The government plans to open up a second camp northeast of Amman. But the majority of Syrian arrivals are seeking refuge in established urban areas.

This is due to a combination of overcrowding at the camps and a reluctance among some Syrians to stay there for fear that they are being tracked by the Assad regime, and are putting themselves in danger.

There are tensions among the refugees too. The camps are overcrowded, and there have been protests among the refugees at the conditions. Recent press reports suggest that some 200 refugees stormed a food store at Za’atari, and had to be contained by security forces using tear gas. Other reports have said that refugees have fought over the distribution of tents.

Lebanon

Across the border in Lebanon, the situation is similarly precarious. Like Jordan, the economy is already extremely fragile. For years, the government has tried and failed to provide basic services for its people. High energy prices and regional conflict has made this task even more difficult.

The political situation in Lebanon is also extremely delicate. The country is multi-denominational, but the current government is dominated by Hizbollah, which is reportedly supporting the Syrian government with arms and other support.

Late last week, the social affairs minister, Wael Abu Faour said that Lebanon “doesn’t just need financial help”. If the refugee influx continues, he said, he feared that the country’s “economic and social situation will be facing a time bomb“.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.