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Most Jordanians say no to more Syrian refugees

With the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan topping 100,000, 65 percent of Jordanians oppose allowing any more to enter the country, insisting their cash-strapped country is at capacity.

By Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / October 1, 2012

In this September 15 photo, newly-arrived Syrian refugee families rest after having crossed the border from Tal Shehab in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, to near Ramtha, Jordan.

Raad Adayleh/AP

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Amman and Mafraq, Jordan

As Syria's civil war drags on in bloody stalemate, Jordan has maintained an open door policy for its refugees, allowing in tens of thousands of people. But with no end to the conflict in sight, the friendly relationship between Jordan and its "guests" is showing signs of strain.

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The first refugees were welcomed into cities and towns across Jordan, and the local papers ran glowing articles describing how Jordanians were pulling together to aid those fleeing the conflict. But as the numbers of Syrians in the country have grown, Jordan has taken steps to control the influx. In July, it began sending new arrivals to a tent camp near the city of Mafraq.

A string of recent incidents have highlighted the growing tension between communities: there was a scuffle between refugees and locals in the border town of Ramtha, a disturbance at a United Nations help desk in nearby Irbid, and riots in the tent camp near Mafraq that have left numerous Jordanian security personnel injured. And recently, a survey conducted by Jordan's leading research center found large majorities of Jordanians in favor of closing the borders to Syrians altogether.

Sixty-five percent of Jordanians oppose allowing more Syrians into the country, and more than 80 percent said the Syrians who were here should be confined to camps, according to a nationwide poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University.

"They are not [in favor of] kicking out [those] who are here," says Walid Alkhatib, head of the center's polling unit. "But they are saying: this is enough for us. This is our capacity, that's it."

The survey, conducted at the end of August, is the first to measure Jordanian's attitudes toward refugees. As such, Mr. Alkhatib warns, it cannot be taken as a measure of change. But there are indications that the country's mood is growing darker.

"Yesterday there were clashes between the security and the refugees in the camp," Alkhatib says. "So there is a lot of tension. If we had conducted the survey today, we might receive even, not 65 percent, maybe 70 percent [overall]."

The survey also found the largest constituency in favor of closing the border, 88 percent, in the governorate of Mafraq, where the Za'atari refugee camp is located.

There are also indications that Jordanian's feelings about the Syrian uprising as a whole are growing more negative. In focus groups done earlier in the year, Alkhatib says there was a clear perception of the Syrian conflict as "a revolution against the regime." By August, however, 45 percent of respondents to the survey said the situation was an "external conspiracy against Syria."

"People were in favor of seeing [Syria's] revolution, when it was a peaceful revolution," Alkhatib says. "When it comes to armed revolution, people start wondering: is it a revolution or not a revolution? Is it something sponsored by the West, because they want to change the regime, or is it something coming actually from inside Syria?"

Already limited resources

The Jordanian government has emphasized the economic impact of Syrians in its public communications, and with good reason. Jordan is a tiny country, with no oil, little arable land, and limited supplies of water. It is highly dependent on imported energy and food, and its budget is strained by large subsidies. It is currently in the depths of its own economic crisis, something Alkhatib says looms large in the survey results: Worry about Jordan's ability to provide services was the top reason given by respondents who wanted to end the refugee flow, and the largest support for closing the borders came from low-income Jordanians.

"They feel that Syrians are basically contending [for] Jordanian jobs, because Syrians are hard workers," Alkhatib says. "Poor people feel the government is giving money to refugees and not giving money to poor people, Jordanians."

International aid agencies say they are helping to combat this perception, making sure that some of the money coming in goes to support low-income Jordanians. But foreign assistance has been slow to arrive, and with the number of refugees constantly growing, even meeting basic needs is a challenge.

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