Jordan battles with Syria refugee crisis

AMMAN, Jordan, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- The ever-growing flood of refugees from war-torn Syria into neighboring Jordan is imposing greater pressure on the resource-poor kingdom's economy, heightening political unrest that could threaten the Hashemite throne, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Refugees are also pouring into Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey as the 18-month-old civil war in Syria grinds on and seems to be becoming more intense.


But Jordan, with few natural resources and dependent on foreign aid to keep going in the best of times, is facing the greatest burden at a time when it's already grappling with severe shortages of water and electricity.

"The situation in Jordan is emblematic of what is happening in the region and the strain that is being placed on authorities," the Middle East Economic Digest observed.

The United Nations says 234,368 Syrians had registered as refugees or are awaiting registration as of Sept. 2.


"When you do the math, it's quite an astonishing number," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Sept. 4 in Geneva.

The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat recently quoted a confidential Jordanian government analysis as warning that as many as 1 million Syrians could eventually cross into Jordan, which would require some 20 refugee camps to be built.

The U.N. refugee agency said 100,000 refugees fled in August, the highest monthly total since the Syrian conflict erupted March 15, 2011, with a pro-democracy uprising against the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad.

Jordan says it's taken in 183,000 refugees but there's no sign of a slowdown in the flood of fleeing Syrians. Turkey says it has more than 80,000 and the U.N. forecasts that could swell to as many as 200,000. Lebanon has an estimated 59,000 and Iraq nearly 20,000 and the numbers are growing daily.

The strains of the refugee influx into Jordan are causing political jitters in the kingdom established by Britain after World War I as a reward for the Hashemites of what is now Saudi Arabia for leading the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Through some adroit political footwork and repeated promises of reform, King Abdullah II had managed to avoid the worst excesses of the wave of pro-democracy uprisings that broke out across the Arab world in early 2011.


But the Syrian crisis, and the tremors it's causing in the kingdom, has intensified demands by the Islamist-led opposition parties for sweeping political and economic changes.

Tempers are growing increasingly short at the pace of reform pledged by Abdullah, who appears loath to surrender royal powers by widening an electoral process that to a large extent is controlled by the Hashemite intelligence apparatus.

Abdullah has changed governments four times since the so-called Arab Spring began in Tunisia in January 2011. Critics say that was to stall pledges to crack down on rampant official corruption and hand over much of the monarchy's political power to Parliament. In that time, Arab dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Meantime, the influential Bedouin tribes who are the bedrock of Abdullah's support, as well as the all-pervasive security services, don't want to see reforms that would lessen their power.

Jordan's economy has been battered by the constant sabotage of a pipeline from Egypt that supplies cheap gas, forcing Amman to buy expensive heavy fuel.

Abdullah was buoyed in July by a $2 billion, 3-year aid package from the International Monetary Fund to help him weather the political turmoil sweeping the Middle East. But economists say the package falls far short of solving Jordan's long-term financial crisis and simply buys the king some time.


"The loans and aid are like putting cosmetics on a very sick person, while not doing anything about the person's fundamental illness," observed Jordanian economist Riad Khouri.

On Sept. 1, Abdullah ordered a 10 percent increase in gasoline prices, part of what the Financial Times called "a tortuous effort to reduce the state's chronic budget deficit by cutting subsidies for fuel, power, water and food staples."

That triggered widespread protests and a strongly worded resolution by Parliament opposing the freeze.

Two days later, the king rescinded the order. But his action has incensed the Islamic Action Front, the most vociferous of his critics, and moved a full-scale confrontation one step closer.

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