Jordanian-Syrian tensions mount as refugee crisis deepens

Photo: Jordanian-Syrian tensions mount as refugee crisis deepens / Arabic region

Abu Khalil al-Saoud returned to his car following shopping only to find the 1998 Toyota's windshield cracked and driver's side window smashed, DPA reported.

The 30-year-old Syrian said one reason why his car was singled out of the dozens of vehicles lined up along the busy Amman thoroughfare was that its plates were Syrian.

"We are no longer welcomed here," said al-Saoud, who fled to Jordan in February after an airstrike demolished his home in the southern village of Dalaa.

The incident is one of several signs of rising tensions between Syrian refugees and Jordanians in recent weeks.

Jordan is hosting nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees whose presence is set to cost the country more than 1.2 billion dollars and is putting an increased stress on its education, health and water sectors, according to officials.

Both Jordanians and the rapidly-growing refugee community are confronting rising prices and water shortages, and nowhere are the tensions starker than in Mafraq.

The sprawling northern city is home to the Zaatari refugee camp - a sprawling desert facility housing some 150,000 Syrians.

In Mafraq, local residents erected a mock "Jordanian refugee camp" to protest what they claim as skyrocketing rents and prices of basic goods sparked by the influx of Syrians.

"Syrians have taken all the apartments and are driving up prices - there is no space left for Jordanians," activist Ahmed Amoush said as he stood outside a makeshift tent housing residents who alleged to have been evicted from their homes in favour of Syrian tenants willing to pay inflated prices.

Syrians say they are increasingly at the mercy of greedy landlords who raise rents as high as 300 per cent.

Mohammed al-Khaled, a Syrian, said he became "desperate" after weeks of failing to find an apartment for a reasonable rent, eventually settling on an unfinished apartment in Mafraq.

As part of the deal struck with his Jordanian landlord, in addition to a 140-dollar monthly rent, al-Khaled must pay for the tiling, electricity and water pipe installation of his rented home.

The former bank clerk learned only shortly after signing the lease that his next door neighbour, a Jordanian, is paying 75 dollars for his identical, finished apartment.

"Jordanians see Syrians nothing more than an opportunity to make an extra dollar," Khaled told dpa.

"After being victimized in Syria, we are being victimized a second time by Jordanians."

Also behind the friction is increased competition over limited jobs, with Syrians taking up employment in establishments ranging from auto garages to roadside coffee stands.

Some 160,000 Syrians are working illegally throughout Jordan, according to the Labour Ministry, a number officials say is exacerbating Jordan's 20 per cent unemployment rate.

Mohammed Obeidat, one of hundreds of business owners who employ Syrians, says punctuality, reliability and willingness to work for slightly lower than average wages are among reasons employers prefer Syrian workers.

"Citizens may claim they are stealing their jobs, but at the end of the day, Syrians are willing to work under conditions Jordanians refuse," Obeidat said as he stood outside his fast-food restaurant in the northern city of Irbid.

Syrians tell a different tale. They claim they are often reduced to working up to 18-hour days under exploitative conditions for wages less than half of their Jordanian counterparts - sometimes as little as seven dollars per day.

Abu Riyam is one of dozens of Syrians employed at a rock quarry outside the northern city of Zarqa for some 15 dollars a day - less than half the amount paid to their Jordanian peers.

Lifting up his palms, blistered and blackened following another day's work, Abu Riyam said he felt "like a slave."

"After years of working on farms and in construction, this is the hardest work I have ever done in my life- and for so little money," he said.

Although tensions between the two communities have yet to lead to violence, experts warn that Jordan is reaching a "tipping point."

With some 2,000 Syrians pouring into the country each day, UN officials say the refugee community is expected to reach 1.2 million by the end of the year- more than one-fifth of Jordan's population.

Jordan is eyeing nervously the status of some seven million Syrians living along the Jordanian-Syrian border, whose displacement could double the kingdom's population overnight.

David Terze, representative of International Organization for Migration in Jordan, said: "Nobody is talking about it publicly, but the real fears are not Syrians who are here, but the millions who have yet to come."

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