As the violence worsens in neighboring Syria, what began as a trickle of refugees into Jordan has turned into a flood. The United Nations estimates there are now 150,000 refugees in Jordan, and the Jordanian government, struggling with an economic crisis, has been hard-pressed to help them.
Various international aid groups have stepped in to fill the void, but activists and refugees are accusing some of these international bodies of corruption and mismanagement. Accusations range from inflating the number of refugees to gain more international support, to overcharging for services provided including meals, housing, medical care and salaries.
Abu Ali, a Syrian who has been working in the Gulf, drives a white van which does not stop running between Amman and the western border town of Ramtha, just a few miles from the Syrian town of Daraa, helping refugees. He loaded his van with donations and traveled from the Gulf to Jordan, compelled to help his fellow Syrians who are seeking refuge in Jordan. He found his compatriots struggling in refugee centers, often lacking basic needs such as food, suitable shelters and health care.
Abu Ali said he spoke to many refugees as he traveled across Jordan, and was appalled by organizations trying to profit from helping those who escaped the violence in Syria.
“I prepare a full good meal for refugees at a cost of less than three dollars, while the aid group helping refugees in Zaatri is charging more than eleven dollars,” he told The Media Line.
Abu Ahmed said his efforts to help refugees are being met with objections from aid organizations, despite the fact that many families are left without food or accommodations. Several families in Ramtha who spoke to The Media Line said they are not supported by any organization, despite registering for help.
In the desolate town of Zaatari, Jordan erected its first camp for refugees. The tents came from UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees. The 3,300 residents here have to walk outside the camp every day to collect water from tanks. The day after the camp was erected, strong desert winds blew the tents over and the refugees were left dusty and angry.
“Where is the money that the world handed to Jordan to help us?” shouted an old woman. “They put us in tents in nowhere, without running water and electricity. She said she wanted to return to Syria despite the harsh crackdown by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
“I want to go back and be buried under Bashar’s bombing – it would be better for me,” she said as her eyes swelled with tears.
The anger over the lack of services for the refugees dominates conversations here. Some activists are seeking to form alliances to combat corruption.
One activist, called Abu Saleem, said he is preparing a complaint against Ahel Al-Ketab Wa Al-Sunna, a branch of a well known Jordanian charity, charging corruption and financial mismanagement.
Officials from the organization denied the charges, saying they are monitored by the government’s audit bureau and have no commercial interests.
Aid-dependent Jordan has been complaining about the pressure of hosting refugees and has urged the international community to open their wallets to help pay for accommodating the refugees. Jordan says hosting a single refugee costs $20 a day. The government is already fighting a $2 billion dollar deficit.
Foreign minister Nasser Judeh indicated that his country does not intend to shut its doors to Syrian refugees, but stressed the need for help, as quickly as possible.
“We will continue providing a safe haven for Syrian refugees,” he said during a press conference held at the opening of the Zaatari camp. “At the same time, given the increasing numbers that we have seen in the last few months, we have sought the assistance of friends around the world—the international community, international organizations.”
Western diplomats say that while hosting refugees is putting economic pressure on Jordan, the government is also looking to benefit from the situation. They say the government is overestimating the number of refugees from Syria.
Sources at the UN told The Media Line that some groups that deal with refugees do increase their numbers in order to keep the aid flowing.
“At one point, they have no idea about number of refugees leaving Syria, but they have to come up with some figure, so it is exaggerated, always,” one told The Media Line.
Jordan has opened its borders to Syrians since the uprising against the Assad regime began 17 months ago. The government says nearly 150,000 Syrians have already crossed into its territories and UN officials say the flood of refugees is continuing every day.
Andrew Harper, the UNHCR representative to Jordan, said the organization anticipates the number of refugees will continue to grow in coming weeks, seeing an average of nearly 500 people crossing every night from the southern Syrian city of Deraa.
“Whenever we have tents, they are filled and new people are coming,” he told reporters this week during a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp by Arab diplomats.
Abu Ahmed, the refugee advocate, says he wants to open a large kitchen in Irbid to serve the refugees, but he the government is putting legal complications and mountains of paperwork in his way.
“This is an opportunity for people to get rich and they want to take advantage of that,” he said. “They are toying with the emotions and sympathies of other nations in order to make big bucks.”