World & Nation

Jordan feels the strain of Syria refugee influx

Jordan feels the strain of Syria refugee influx
Syrian refugee children cross into Jordan with their families at Thuniba. The U.N. says the influx is growing.
(European Pressphoto Agency)

ZAATARI, Jordan — The nearly 25,000 Syrians who have taken refuge here from the war in their homeland live in pervasive frustration: Penned in by a wire fence, many wear surgical masks against the swirling dust as officials scramble to provide enough shelter, food and water.

Twice recently, the anger has erupted. In late August, police fired tear gas to break up a riot, but not before 28 Jordanian soldiers suffered injuries, one a fractured skull. Afterward, 150 refugees were expelled back to Syria.

The Syrian conflict has sent more than 228,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations refugee agency, adding a destabilizing element to what is already one of the world’s most volatile regions. A fishing boat filled with people trying to leave Syria and Iraq for Europe struck rocks Thursday and sank off the coast of Turkey, and dozens drowned, Turkish news reports said.

International attention has focused on Turkey, where more than 80,000 Syrians are housed in a string of camps along the border. But comparatively tiny Jordan, a nation of 6.5 million, is hosting more than 72,000 U.N.-registered refugees from Syria, as well as thousands of others who are staying with friends, family or others willing to take them in.


Despite its many shortcomings, the Zaatari camp has become the primary destination for Syrians fleeing into Jordan.

It was thrown up in late July on a dusty, wind-swept patch of desert 50 miles from Amman, the Jordanian capital. Across the border with Syria is Dara province, where the uprising against President Bashar Assad began almost 18 months ago.

In the last week, the U.N. says, about 1,400 Syrians have been arriving daily at the camp, double the number of a week earlier, swelling the population to almost 25,000. The number is sure to rise, as violence in Syria shows no signs of abating and the government has stepped up aerial and artillery attacks on suspected rebel enclaves. Jordan, like Turkey, says it is in urgent need of more international aid.

Despite the furious pace of construction at the camp, Jordanian officials and aid workers say, Zaatari may no longer be able to accommodate the influx.


“It all needs patience,” said Mohammad Armoush, camp administrator. “We’re building toilets, putting up electricity poles.… But it is challenging.”

The riot on Aug. 28, the second disturbance in a week, dramatized the challenge. According to official accounts, crowds angry about spartan conditions at the camp pelted police with rocks.

Sweltering heat and constant dust have prompted many camp residents to seek treatment at Moroccan- and French-run field hospitals.

The camp is dotted with a few trailers, where some luckier people live. The rest have to find a place in canvas tents. The unending white of the caravans and tents is interspersed with the dark gray of cinder block toilets and showers, and scattered “child-friendly areas.” Water comes from taps that rise from the ground.

Many camp residents and workers blame the unrest on an influx of unaccompanied men.

The men, like everyone else, are banned from leaving the camp, except for special medical circumstances or voluntary repatriation to Syria, a step the U.N. says at least 1,700 camp residents have taken despite the danger.

There is no gainful employment here, and few organized activities, even though Zaatari has taken in a large number of educated, middle-class Syrians.

“A single man comes here from Syria and on his first day the dust annoys him,” said one refugee, a man in his early 40s with two children who fled Dara two months ago. “He thinks he’s going to get an apartment, a taxi. We just want to live in peace. We just thank God that we’re here.”


The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from other camp residents or Syrian authorities, said the newly arrived young men often cast themselves as protectors of the other refugees.

“Protectors from what? What is wrong here? They can protect someone in a war zone, in Syria, not here,” he said.

Rumors persist that Syria’s intelligence services have dispatched operatives to the camp to foment unrest or keep tabs on antigovernment activists. Suspicion abounds.

Women and children account for about two-thirds of the camp’s population, and children are especially vulnerable to the harsh conditions. Dr. Mohammad Gartoum, the psychiatrist at the Moroccan clinic, said many arrive with respiratory or skin problems.

Others have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, paging through children’s drawings depicting planes, tanks and men with guns. They suffer from insomnia, uncontrollable urination, fear for their parents’ lives, he said.

Nadine Haddad, an aid worker with Save the Children, said the group was offering children at the camp games, dancing and music to try to “bring back the normal life cycle they had.”

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.