U.S. and Jordan in a Dispute Over Syrian Refugees

The West keeps asking its Middle East allies to bear the burden.

A terrorist threat?

Photographer: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

Just as Jordanian officials were leading a high-level meeting on the Syrian refugee crisis at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last week, the UN and the U.S. were pressing the desert kingdom to admit thousands of Syrians stranded on its border and being denied access to a refugee camp that stands half empty.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. State Department are at odds with the kingdom over the Azraq refugee camp. U.S. officials say that more than 3,000 displaced Syrians have been waiting east of the Syrian city of As Suwayda for months without proper food and shelter, and that some have died. The Jordanian government says there are fewer than 1,000 refugees, and that some of them could be radicals who threaten national security.

The U.S. and UN push to help the refugees against Jordan’s reluctance is more complicated than it seems. Jordan has already done far more for the Syrians than the West, especially the U.S., and the small kingdom has legitimate concerns about upping its contribution. More broadly, the refugees’ predicament is one glaring example of how the international system for helping refugees get admitted to neighboring countries is increasingly dysfunctional.

“We are aware of the dire situation for refugees currently at Jordan’s border with Syria, and we are engaging with Jordan to see how we can assist with facilitating their entry,” Danna Van Brandt, the State Department’s spokesperson for the bureau of population, refugees and migration, told me. “We believe the international community has a fundamental obligation to come together to help Syrians, and all other refugee populations who are seeking safety.”

Another U.S. official told me that President Barack Obama raised the issue in a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House last December, but 10 months later there has been no movement on the Jordanian side.

According to the UN high commissioner’s figures, the Azraq refugee camp had fewer than 23,000 refugees as of August, about a year and a half after it opened. It has a capacity of 50,000, and UN plans call for it to eventually hold more than 100,000 Syrians, which would make it the largest refugee camp in Jordan. The nearby Zaatari camp has about 80,000 refugees, according to the UN agency.

Overall, Jordan has taken in more than 630,000 registered Syrians since the crisis began in 2011, and Jordanian government estimates place the total refugee count including unregistered migrants at over 1.4 million. The U.S. has provided nearly $668 million in support, along with $3 billion over the next three years in general aid to shore up the government. The UN high commissioner’s office and U.S. officials say they are sympathetic to the pressure the refugees are placing on Jordan’s economy, but are still frustrated that the country has slowed its refugee admittance to a trickle.

A Jordanian government official told me that increased fighting in the southern parts of Syria has prompted the kingdom to step up its scrutiny of incoming refugees. The official acknowledged that there has been a downturn in admissions, but insisted that the flow has not been cut off completely. The Jordanian military has determined that many of the people on the border are not actually Syrian, he said, and therefore may have ties to foreign fighter groups.

The UN refugee office did not respond to a request for comment on the Jordan-Syria border.

Syria experts in the U.S. say it’s not surprising that Jordan is closing its borders, considering the likelihood that the refugee flow will continue for years to come, potentially overwhelming Jordan’s ability to absorb them.  

“Washington says take in more refugees, the Jordanians say no we can’t, and we are concerned about extremism,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their concerns are justified, but that doesn’t help those who are stuck on the border. We need to do something about them.”

It’s a little rich for the U.S. to demand other countries take in more Syrians when it has admitted a total of just 1,500 since the crisis began. The Obama administration’s plan is to take in 10,000 more next year, but even that modest intention is caught up in a political debate over the fear that the Syrians could present a security threat.

The U.S.-Jordanian dispute is another indication of how the White House’s overall strategy to contain the Syria crisis, based on bombing the Islamic State and giving aid to regional allies, is doomed to failure. Neither the refugee problem nor the jihadist problem can be contained. America’s regional allies had been pitching in on both, but they are done carrying most of the burden.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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