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Syrian crisis’ ‘other’ anniversary

Apr 02,2014 - Last updated at Apr 02,2014

One week after pundits and polls rehashed death tolls and revolutionary rhetoric to mark three years of Syrian crisis, Jordan and the rest of the region marked a quieter and far more devastating anniversary.

Three years ago this month, Mohammed Rifai was one of the first dozens of Syrians to trickle across the border from their hometown, Daraa, into neighbouring Jordan to escape a tightening military blockade.

Now entering his fourth year of exile, Rifai and hundreds of thousands of Syrians are grasping a new way of life as Jordanian authorities prepare to open the country’s fifth refugee camp for Syrians.

Once sleeping on the living room floor of a relative’s apartment in neighbouring Ramtha, Rifai now resides in a fully furnished apartment in the northern city of Irbid, part owner of a successful Damascus-style bakery.

The initial trickle of Daraa residents was once housed by Jordanian families along the border region. Now landlords are evicting Jordanian families in favour of Syrian tenants.

From Ramtha to Aqaba, thousands of Rifais are finding themselves more settled in their Jordanian life — 615,000 to be more exact, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

With 450,000 of Jordan’s registered refugees living outside of camps and within host communities — in addition to a further 400,000 unregistered Syrians cited by Jordanian authorities — the line between refugees and residents is becoming increasingly blurred.

Three years since the days the number of Syrians who had fled to Jordan could be counted on two hands, Syrians are filling Jordan’s schools, hospitals, restaurants and apartment buildings.

They are now dominating the labour sector — accounting for over half of service sector jobs, according to official figures — taking up employment as chefs, tailors, secretaries and even taxi drivers.

Once symbols of a humanitarian crisis and the ruthless military crackdown which has caused several massacres and even further unspoken horrors, Syrians are now known simply as bakers, grocers, electricians, imams and even next-door neighbours.

After three years of bloodshed and failures by both the opposition and the international community, Syria’s refugees no longer talk of returning to their old lives, they are busily building lives anew.

And therein lies the true danger.

For, by silently accepting the “normalcy” of their plight, the international community has condoned the systematic violence that has driven nearly one-sixth of Syrian civilians form their homeland and turned its collective back on both Syrians and host countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Rather than acknowledge the true cost of one of the greatest humanitarian crises to have hit the region in half-a-century — with Syrian refugee set to cost Jordan over $3 billion this year alone — global powers seem content knowing that Syrian refugees are “getting by”, leaving host countries to foot the bill.

Instead of discussing return, reconstruction and rehabilitation of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict, both opposition figures and international aid officials whisper in hushed tones a far more controversial, and realistic, “r” word: resettlement.

Yet unlike the Iraqi refugee crisis, during which collective guilt due to their direct involvement led the US, Britain and Europe to open their borders to over 400,000 Iraqis, the international community has been much less generous host to Syrians.

By late March, Western states had granted asylum to a mere 3,500 Syrians, with Sweden being the lone country to grant citizenship.

Rather than full asylum or permanent settlement, UNHCR and its partners instead gently prodded Western countries to provide “humanitarian admission” or temporary residence to as many as 100,000 Syrians until the conflict subsides.

So far, the UN has secured 20,000 pledges. 

The vast majority have been unconfirmed or remain pending “indefinitely” due to domestic wrangling over rule and regulations.

With thousands of Syrians being driven into neighbouring states daily, the true resettlement of the Syrian people is occurring each and every hour.

Rather than in Western states flushed with resources, Syrians are being de facto resettled in the very countries which can least afford it.

Talk of the potential long-term settlement of Syrians in Jordan even led the Interior Ministry to deny rumours that Amman is prepared to issue passports to Syrian refugees, in the latest sign that decision makers are finally accepting a scenario feared the most.

Jordan’s Syrian guests are settled for an extended, if not near indefinite, stay.

The international community’s abdication of responsibility has been a particularly steep price for resource-poor Jordan, whose water, energy, education and health sectors have been strained by the still rapidly growing population; officials are calling for an additional $1.2 billion in additional aid to host the current number of Syrians this year.

Then there are those like Rifai, who three years after brave protesters planted the seeds of a revolution are laying down their roots in Jordanian soil.

More than the birth of a revolution or the outbreak of a conflict that has claimed over 150,000 lives, this week marked the moment when the international community failed an entire population, and when the destines of two peoples, Jordanians and Syrians, were changed forever.

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