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.
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.
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.
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."