As Syrian Refugees Develop Roots, Jordan Grows Wary

Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, October 6, 2013

For Jordan, a small desert nation that is one of the world’s driest, the recent home improvement trends at its biggest camp for Syrian refugees may prove particularly unsettling.

“This helps us forget the war,” said Dalal al-Mansour, 35, smiling at her children who were splashing around inside the four-level family fountain one recent afternoon.

With no end to the 30-month-old war back home, some Syrian refugees are seemingly settling in for the long haul by recreating fixtures of their past domestic lives: paved courtyards with decorative water fountains. One man even built a swimming pool in his courtyard.

That growing look of permanence is deeply unsettling to Jordan, which over the decades has weathered large-scale migrations of refugees, among them Iraqis and Palestinians, as well as the accompanying, existential threats to its fragile demographic balance.

The latest arrivals, nearly 600,000 Syrians, have weighed heavily even as Jordan’s importance to the United States as an Arab ally in the Middle East has increased with Egypt’s instability. They are among the roughly two million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them this year, and registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Hundreds of thousands more are believed to be living in the region illegally.

Like previous generations of refugees, the Syrians are quickly developing ties to their surrounding areas, increasing fears that they will stay and that their huge numbers will cause a sudden, and potentially destabilizing, redrawing of the demographic map.

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Like his predecessors, King Abdullah II depends on the support of the land’s original inhabitants, Bedouin tribes known as the East Bankers. Pampered politically, the East Bankers have been losing their influence to the Palestinian-Jordanians who came to Jordan as refugees in 1948 and 1967, and risk further losses if the Syrians stay. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees who came to Jordan in the past decade have also stayed.

In a country of only six million, the long-term presence of 600,000 Syrians—the Jordanian government says there are actually hundreds of thousands more—could further decrease the percentage of East Bankers. “If the Syrians stay, we will be destroyed,” said Raad al-Nisah, 30, who owns a small coffee stand in Marka, a neighborhood in Amman, the capital. “We will become minorities and guests in our own nation.”

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Ibrahim Saif, the minister of planning and international cooperation, said the presence of the Syrians in Jordan was tantamount to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.” Jordan has said the cost of hosting the refugees is $1 billion a year.

Mr. Saif said that the “backlash, animosity and all kind of negative feelings emerging” toward the Syrian refugees was a source of worry for the government. While providing assistance, he said, it was necessary to ensure that the refugee population remained a “temporary phenomenon.”

“You try to restrict their access to the labor market,” he said. “You try to restrict their access to areas that could enhance sustainability. You provide the minimum education, health and food, but not anything further. You don’t want to enhance their engagement with the rest of the society.”

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