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Third anniversary

Mar 12,2014 - Last updated at Mar 12,2014

This weekend marks the third anniversary of what has become the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century, that of the Syrian conflict. Violence continues unabated and millions of Syrians have been forced from their homes. In Syria itself the UN estimates that 9 million are in need of aid, including 3.5 million living in areas where aid groups cannot reach them. Another 2.5 million are now registered as refugees — half of whom are children. Statistics, however shocking, cannot possibly convey the extent of the suffering that is taking place in Syria and of those who have had to flee their homeland.

The people escaping across the border often arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing and the money that they have in their pockets. Many families have been split, their homes and lives abandoned, children uprooted from their schools and their futures thrown into disarray. Every day Jordan receives another 400 to 1,000 Syrians to protect and assist.

Despite the horror and brutality that is marking the war in Syria, Jordan continues to set an example not only regionally but internationally, showing how — despite its own very limited resources and significant challenges — a country can continue to keep its borders open to the most vulnerable fleeing conflict. This week marks the third anniversary of the conflict in Syria, but also of Jordan’s continued commitment to the people of Syria and the protection of refugees. 

No one wants to open another refugee camp in the Kingdom, yet given the increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border, and the lack of any significant improvement in Syria, the government has had to announce that another large camp will open at the end of April near Azraq. This camp will have an initial capacity of some 20,000 refugees, and could, if required, be expanded to host over 130,000. It is horrifying to think that we will need another camp the size of Zaatari, but as we have seen time and time again in the Syria crisis, even our “worst case” scenarios are often exceeded. If we look back to this time last year, the number of Syrians registered with UNHCR was “only” 300,000. It has now almost doubled, to 600,000. The question is how many more will flee to Jordan should the conflict reach a fourth anniversary. 

It is important to again note the colossal efforts that the government and people of Jordan, with the support of the humanitarian community, have made to protect, assist, and shelter the massive number of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria. These efforts have saved tens of thousands of lives — and are also a living testament to the scale of Jordan’s generosity — a generosity that is firmly rooted in its history and culture.

Indeed Jordan has been a shelter for successive waves of refugees, starting with the Circassians, Armenians, then Palestinians, Iraqis and more recently Syrians — reflecting the ancient culture of hospitality and refugee protection in the Arabian Peninsula and the region. Traditions of receiving, protecting and aiding the weak and those in need of safety and sanctuary have been codified and enshrined in Islamic law and Islamic tradition. The principle of non-refoulement — that people should not be sent back to where they might face danger or persecution, the protection granted not only to the refugee but also to the family and property, the civilian character of asylum — all are today modern legal norms for the protection of refugees that were already enshrined in the Sharia. They are also found in regional instruments such as the Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 1990, which provides that: “Every human being… if persecuted is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall ensure his protection until his safety has been attained…”

While Jordan’s traditions and generosity remain strong, its role cannot be taken for granted nor should it be forgotten as other crises distract international attention from the region. It is imperative that the international community recognise the enormous pressure that Jordan faces and acknowledge its difficult economic situation. A strong, economically secure host country is more likely to be able to continue to guarantee the safety and needs of refugees and at-risk populations — now and in the future. This is a role that we should all support, with all means necessary.

While significant support has come to Jordan, it does not match the enormous needs on the ground. Today, there are still few signs of new health clinics, hospitals, or schools in the north of Jordan, which are desperately needed to alleviate the enormous pressure that the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees have placed on public services. Despite the commitments made in the recent pledging conference in Kuwait, aid agencies have received just 16 per cent of what was appealed for. 

Schools that are already overstretched are accepting Syrian children desperate to restart their learning; hospitals short of beds and overworked medical staff continue to provide life-saving care for Syrians. Subsidised energy, water and bread are freely made available to all those in need. The Jordan Armed Forces, most notably the Border Guards, are not only protecting the Kingdom’s borders but are literally at the front line in bringing refugees across to safety.

Make no mistake. Continued respect for the right of refugees to seek asylum in Jordan is dependent on the continued goodwill of the Jordanian society.

Refugees themselves have understood quite well that the Kingdom’s noble effort has not come without a cost, and that every day Jordan pays a heavy price.

If hospitality is rewarded by international solidarity, it should see more support for Jordan and Jordanians: investment in infrastructure, waste treatment plants, bore holes, and clinics to ensure that both refugees and their host communities benefit. It is only fair that the enormous demands placed on Jordan’s electricity infrastructure, schools, hospitals, wastewater plants and other essential infrastructure be compensated.

At the current rate of entry, some 800,000 Syrians could be in need of protection and assistance in the Kingdom within the next year. Such an influx would be a serious challenge for any more affluent country in the world, let alone one with limited natural resources and strained infrastructure.

According to the government, more than $1 billion in costs were incurred in 2013. With an accelerating refugee population, this figure will be much higher in 2014.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that while the region has a rich and generous tradition of providing protection to those fleeing violence, which Jordan has exemplified in its hospitality towards Syrian refugees, it cannot continue to provide this protection space without the support of its friends. Support should not be based on short-term strategic considerations but on a longer-term strategic partnership providing the necessary support to host countries in the region until the displaced can return.

Indeed, it is a country such as Jordan, with its own set of challenges, that continues to set an example to the rest of the world on how to respect the needs of those who are most vulnerable and who have been forced to flee their homes.

To Jordan and its people we again say thank you.

The writer is UNHCR representative to Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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