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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.

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On Sept. 27, the UN increased its request for funding for the second time since March, estimating that aid agencies will need half a billion dollars to meet the needs of Syrian refugees through the end of the year. 

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Fully half of that request is earmarked for Jordan, where aid agencies are trying to both maintain services in the camp and provide assistance to Syrians living in Jordanian cities and towns, who may also begin looking for shelter in the camps if they exhaust those communities' resources.

All of this is in the face of an uncertain, but potentially huge number of new arrivals.

"In August and September the numbers have been bouncing around from anywhere between 3,000 to several hundred [refugees] a night," says Andrew Harper, the UN refugee agency's representative in Jordan. "We know there are tens or hundreds of thousands in Syria who would like to come to Jordan, if they have the opportunity. We need to be prepared." 

The UN is currently providing assistance to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, and estimates there may be 250,000 here by the end of 2012. 

Refugees: We would prefer Syria to this

With a population of 30,000 and growing, the Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan is basically a city about the size of Juneau, Alaska. Located in a bare patch of desert near Mafraq, it is an inhospitable place, baking hot during the day and freezing at night. It is constantly expanding, and simply laying down white gravel to reduce the choking clouds of dust has become a major task for the camp managers.

Syrians' perceptions of Jordan have also soured, in no large part because of the difficult life here.

"The dust, the dust! this is the wrong place to have put us," says one young man living in the camp who asked not to be named. "The food is not fit for humans. The chicken is full of blood, it's not well-done, and the bread, you can't eat it. And the water – each two days, three days, they will fill the tanks.... There is no cool water." His complaints were echoed by numerous people living in the camp.

The hardships are so ubiquitous that some say they would rather return to Syria than stay.

On Sept. 24, hundreds of refugees in the camp held a protest, demanding to be allowed to return to Syria. The demonstration turned into a riot, which left a hospital and office in the camp badly damaged and several police officers injured.

Refugees complain the Jordanian government is holding their passports, and has not been allowing people to return to Syria. UN refugee agency officials said that there had been no repatriations for some time, because the fighting on the border was too intense for refugees to cross. 

"Those refugees who wish to return to Syria can do so. We do not prevent anyone from exercising this right, but we are trying to secure their return safely," Jordan's government spokesman said in a statement sent by his office to the Christian Science Monitor.

Jordan may have other reasons to try to keep refugees from moving back and forth. Many of the young men interviewed in the camp said they wanted to go back and fight – if only the West would provide them with weapons. Some claimed to have fought with the Free Syrian Army before coming to Jordan.

For a small kingdom that has been carefully trying to remain neutral, having Syrian rebels use its refugee camps and cities as a safe area is a nightmare scenario that could jeopardize Jordan's delicate relationship with Syria, and even cause violence to spill over into Jordan. Concerns about refugees threatening national security were also widely cited by Jordanians in Alkhatib's survey. 

But political balancing acts do little to calm the frustration of refugees who feel trapped in Za'atari.

"Here is a prison," says one man, who was waiting by the camp's main gate on Thursday, in the hopes of getting a place for his family on a crowded bus headed back to Syria. "Guantanamo. Army. Riot police. I want to go out to get medicine, it's not allowed. You can't exist."

"One thing that's very clear is that Syrians were very much welcomed into Jordan, and are still welcomed ... but the numbers are increasing ... and each individual could represent a burden on communities," says Aoife McDonnel, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency. "We could see a decline in Jordanian attitudes toward the Syrians."

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