The nature of the crisis in Syria is changing apace. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned in last week’s Guardian: ‘The Syrian civil war is the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war. The modern boundaries of the Middle East and the post-Ottoman agreements of the Sykes Picot treaty in 1916 that underpin them may unravel if the crisis is not brought to an end.’ Jordan plays a crucial role here and is probably the biggest refugee camp in the world. I made a compelling journey through Jordan, met with Syrian refugees there and observed the following.
The political impasse in Syria is not without consequences, and has led to an exodus of its people. The Jordanian Prime Minister, calling upon the United Nations Security Council, reported that the enormous influx of Syrian refugees is a threat to Jordan’s national security. And yet that is just half the story, because at the same time, Jordan allows Western training camps on its soil, where ‘freedom fighters’ are being trained by NATO, according to Michel Chossudovsky of the American Transnational Foundation of Peace. This foreign legion is being funded from abroad. The chaos in Syria is worsening as a result, leading to an increased influx of refugees. Europe and the US contribute to Syria’s civil war, ongoing for two years, yet keep their borders tightly shut. The West continues to turn a blind eye to its neighbour. Only last month did Germany grant entry to 5000 Syrian refugees.
Every night some two thousand refugees cross the border. UNHCR Jordan expects 1.2 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2013: one fifth of the Jordanian population. The Zaatari camp houses 100,000 of the 400,000 Syrians who fled the violence of both Assad and the opposition. The camp is run by UNHCR and the Jordanian security forces. As one Syrian I speak to remarks, the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees of the Saddam Hussein era were welcomed into Syrian homes; there was no Zaatari camp. This image may be rose-tinted, however, Syrian hospitality is famous the world over. Syrians feel they are now being humiliated; treated like refuse. Most of them want just one thing: to return home as soon as possible. There are also Syrians who are being integrated into local communities. Christian and Muslim volunteers work around the clock to support the refugees in their areas. But the stack of registration papers with new Syrians grows ever fast and this is on top of the refugees already in Jordan: Libyans, Egyptians, Iraqis and of course Palestinians.
It is for this reason that there is such sensitivity around the numbers of Syrian Palestinians coming into Jordan. The Jordanian population is already made up of 60% Palestinians. ‘In reality percentages are much higher,’ says a diplomat. With the admission of Syrian Palestinians the Jordanian king risks the support of his rank and file, the Hashemite clans. One aid organisation estimates that 12,000 Syrian Palestinians have managed to cross the border illegally. Diplomatic sources confirm that this group is systematically turned away at the border and often find their death on being sent back into Syria.
To date, very little of the funding promised by European and Arab countries has arrived. Unicef in Jordan announced that it may be forced to stop delivering water to the refugees in Zaatari by the beginning of May. Jordan is fourth on the list of water scarcity, directly impacting households and agricultural use. Redundancy and poverty are spiraling. Jordanians are losing their jobs to Syrians willing to work for half the price. Rents have doubled, and subsidies for gas and petrol have been scrapped.
War is trade and drives prices up. Anyone wanting to leave the camp legally needs someone to stand bail for them. A sum of £230 is not uncommon. The main street of the camp – dubbed the fifth biggest town in Jordan – is like a bazaar, with falafel stands and wares of all kinds. Syrians are traders. The fundamentalist ‘freedom fighters’ recruited and trained by the West journey to and from the camp into Syria to support ‘The Free Syrian Army’. Many families have lost their men through ethnic cleansing, both on the Sunni and Shiite sides. ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,’ says one of seven widows from one family. As the New York Times has reported, the Saudis deliver weapons to the fundamentalist ‘rebels’ because they want to create a Sunni Muslim state in Syria, to the enragement of many Syrians, at the same time signing Syrian women up for work in nightclubs or as prostitutes.
Jordan pays a high price for the West’s pussy-footing. A Syrian from Der’aa asks: ‘Why is Europe doing nothing to support us? Are you afraid we are fundamentalists? We are liberal Muslims and Christians! You are mistaking us for your friends the Saudis.’ Syrians hope Europe will open its borders to refugees and provide medical and material support.
Jordan is on the brink of collapse, heading for a humanitarian disaster, and with many more refugees on the way. What happened to the European spirit of neighbourliness? Love your neighbour like yourself? Double standards seem to operate: Israel versus its neighbours; the Palestinian issue; the illegal invasion of Iraq; intervention in Libya. We seem too to have forgotten where our cultural heritage lies. The banks of the Euphrates have been home to Dura Europos (Fort Europe) for three thousand years. Mesopotamia is the cradle of our European civilization. NATO, under US command, is part responsible for the chaos in Jordan. Guterres is right. The US and Europe have a moral obligation to stop being a fortress and show moral support by opening its borders and providing aid.