The first Syrians fleeing to Jordan after conflict erupted in 2011 were mostly people staying with relatives. Somewhat like many Europeans on the eve of WWI, they thought that their sojourn would be short and that they would return to their home country after stability returned. But as protests and violence raged on, it became clear that they would not be going back anytime soon. Tens of thousands more Syrians, most of whom didn’t have Jordanian relatives, soon arrived. They were initially welcomed as dyuf, the Arabic term for guest.
But the flow of Syrians did not slow. Thousands crossed the border every day, eventually totaling over a million. The sentiment of Jordanians quickly morphed from hospitality to anger against the laji’in—refugees—who were straining the resources and finances of the small Arab nation. The incomers who were once welcomed were soon perceived as threats to job security and public finances.
The mass migration has made life difficult for both Syrians and Jordanians. The 620,000 registered refugees is staggering, there are actually probably over a million more undocumented persons in Syria. Rent prices in urban centers have tripled and quadrupled in response to the massive influx of people. Many families have resorted to living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops, and in storage sheds. The unemployment rate stands at 14.7 percent and has been increasing steadily since 2011 even as much of the rest of the world has been recovering from recession. And the official unemployment figure doesn’t even include the majority of Syrians who either cannot find a job or are not allowed to have one, per the law.
The largest refugee camp, Al Za’atari, contains 80,000 Syrians, and is one of the ten largest cities in Jordan. This massive increase in population has put severe financial burdens on the government of Jordan, tasked with caring for the refugees, who amount to over 10 percent of the entire population . The government already spends more than a quarter of its revenue on assistance for displaced Syrians. This is the same proportion that the U.S. government doles out for defense, education, and interest payments combined.
Feeling left with no other choice, Jordan has taken action to solve the crippling unemployment and soaring government debt. According to a report last year by the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute, the Jordanian government began decreasing access to health care, restricting freedom of movement, tightening border control, and eliminating job opportunities for Syrians. As the border was closed, camps of internally displaced persons 75,000 strong emerged on the other side. Just three months ago, the government cut off access to the area after a terrorist attack, severely restricting the ability of humanitarian aid to reach those stuck in Syria. Food is scarce, and disease such as hepatitis is spreading.
In response to the international condemnation of the continued disregard for the migrants stranded along the border, King Abdullah of Jordan laid out an ultimatum: “If you want to take the moral high ground on this issue, we’ll get them all to an airbase and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country.”
No foreign government has taken the offer.
While Jordan has unwillingly taken on an estimated 1.6 million people, an increase of 20 percent of its population, many citizens in United States and countries in the EU have vehemently opposed accepting the refugees. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris last November, over half of Americans said they were unwilling to accept even a single refugee. The Obama administration has nevertheless pledged to take in 10,000 refugees, but this number is far from extraordinary considering Jordan has received 200 times that amount, even though they have a population 100 times smaller than the United States’. Furthermore, of those 10,000, only 1,736 were processed as of April. The low number of refugees being accepted risks scuttling the credibility of the United States as a leader in the push for more sharing of the responsibility of the refugees. Eleanor Acer, a senior director of the advocacy group Human Rights First, said in a New York Times interview that “The United States cannot lead by example unless the administration meets this year’s very modest goal and sets a more meaningful and ambitious goal for next year.”
In Europe, where it is more difficult to control the flow of migrants, the effects of the crisis are modest in comparison to Jordan. Data analyzed by the Pew Research Center shows the country with the largest relative change in its foreign population was Sweden, which saw the foreign-born population increase by 1.5 percentage points. Hungary and Austria also saw increases above 1 point each, a far cry from the 20-point increase Jordan has experienced over the last year. Despite these disparities, anti-immigrant sentiment is still strong. The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in part because of fears that open immigration would lead to an influx of more refugees, and countries such as Hungary are erecting fences to stop the immigration.
The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis is immense: six in 10 Syrians have been displaced from their homes. While the burden has mostly fallen on the countries adjacent to Syria, especially Jordan, citizens of European countries and the United States continue to shrug off the humanitarian crisis.