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The World As A Refugee Camp

I recently took a trip to Jordan, and about a month into my visit I had to renew my visa. On my way to the police station, I imagined what the experience would be like. Get in, stand in line for a couple of minutes, speak to someone about renewing my visa, and return to my temporary apartment. This was not the case.

As soon as I got there, I was forced to communicate in broken Arabic because no one spoke English. I was surprised, given the fact that every foreigner wishing to stay in Jordan for more than a month had to go through the same process, but the reality  was that most people there were  Syrian. I stepped into the very crowded building, and, after struggling for about 30 minutes to communicate that I just needed a stamp as a student, I met a Syrian 20-something-year-old named Karim who helped me with translation, and proceeded to tell me about his personal experience as an urban refugee in Amman.

He told me that his family lived in the part of Syria controlled by Bashar al-Assad; not because they supported him, but because it was less likely for them to get attacked by rebels in that area than by the government in a rebel area. Assad is known to have said, “We don’t kill our people … no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.” And yet on August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were deployed to lessen rebel threats, in the process killing over 1,500 civilians, at least  400 of them children. Due to pressing circumstances such as this, work became both dangerous and difficult, and Karim saw that his only option was to move to Jordan, where he became an undocumented worker to earn cash to send to his family back home.

There is no doubt as to why a large number of Syrians see it as necessary to leave a broken nation and seek safety in Europe, other Middle Eastern countries, or elsewhere,ut the implications of this large movement of people has also significantly altered the infrastructure of many host communities as well, leading to animosity and ethnocentrism. While there is a significant number of Syrian refugees living in the most populous refugee camps in Jordan, Azraq and Zaatari (Zaatari has actually become one of Jordan’s largest cities),  there are also many living in cities such as Amman, where Karim lives.

According to UNHCR data, there are 629,000 registered refugees in Jordan. A report from October 15 says about 520,000 of these refugees are residing in urban centers whereas a much smaller number 110,000 are in camps. While it is understood that there is no way all refugees could be placed in refugee camps, urban centers also face problems as refugees become integrated into Jordanian society.

According to a study conducted by the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, the Jordanian housing sector has especially suffered, since “prices have tripled or even quadrupled in border zones and other areas of high refugee density”. This increase in price not only affects refugees, but also Jordanians, which in turn has led to reservations and tension as to the place of refugees in their communities.

Another primary destination for Syrian refugees has been Germany, which has genuinely attempted to accommodate refugees.  Despite the strength of their national economy, Germany recently found itself in a precarious situation due to struggles such as price changes in commodities associated with the refugee influx. Thus, on September 13, 2015, Germany stopped all trains coming from Austria, most of which carried Syrian refugees that had crossed the Mediterranean only days before. The tensions existing in Jordan are amplified in Germany due to linguistic and racial differences–and anti-Muslim xenophobic feelings are  growing.

The U.S. seems to be following a similar trend. On September 20, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the United States will accept 85,000 refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, though the migration quota isn’t meant exclusively for Syrian refugees. He said this in a conference after speaking with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about the extent of Syrian migration. Although this idea has received support from several city mayors and a large part of the general public, there has also been severe public backlashs from those who believe immigration negatively impacts the job market and promotes crime, an idea that has sadly received much attention in popular media recently due to Donald Trump’s racist remarks about Hispanic immigration.
With immigration playing such a key role in platforms for the upcoming presidential election, it is yet to be seen how the United States will implement these plans given the situation in Europe, and how the state of Syrian refugees such as Karim will develop in relation to international immigration policy. It suffices to say that as this crisis develops, countries must certainly keep an eye on domestic stability and national interests, but must also cooperate with the international community to respond to the refugee crisis to the fullest extent possible allowed by their economic capabilities.

11181767_1460441227598951_5125594821240239302_nJuan Pablo Fernandez Herzberg was born in Havana, Cuba in 1996. Throughout high school, he developed interests in human rights, and is now majoring in Political Science at Columbia University with a special interest in Africa and the Middle East.


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