Op-Ed: Spillover from Syria: Helping a Neighbor Cope

July 29, 2013

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim The Guardian Online - Global Development

By the end of this year, there will be one Syrian in Jordan for every six Jordanians.  This stark figure is just one example of the impact the civil war in Syria is having on neighboring countries, where an estimated 1.5 million Syrians have fled, with even more seeking safety every day. It is also a figure that should spur the international community to action.

The World Bank  has approved $150 million to help Jordan address the rising pressure on Jordanian communities along its border with Syria and in the capital Amman. A large share of Syrian refugees in Jordan are not in camps and have fled into urban areas, beyond the reach of direct United Nations and other donor assistance. Roughly 70 percent of these refugees are estimated to be hosted in local communities, resulting in enormous strain on public resources.

In Mafraq, northeast of Amman, the population has grown from 90,000 to 200,000 in a matter of months, stretching public services to the limit. Despite the sharp increase in waste, the town is still using the same six compactors to process garbage; school class sizes have nearly doubled; and double-shifting has become commonplace in the north, where schools open at dawn and close after dark.  The mayor and governor fear the summer heat may burn through already scarce water resources, pushing health and sanitation services to the brink.

Beyond public resources, Jordanians are also feeling the pinch in the markets. Food is more expensive, rents have tripled in some cases, and competition for jobs has driven wages down. It is easy to see how these factors could stir tension between Jordanian citizens and Syrian refugees.

When I met Jordan’s King Abdullah recently, we talked about what the World Bank Group could do to help. The King emphasized Jordan’s commitment to keeping its borders open, and to helping Syrian refugees, noting that the government has included them in the services it delivers to its own citizens. It was clear to me that the international community must play a role to ensure that Jordan does not shoulder this burden alone. The same needs apply in Lebanon and Turkey, which also are facing a crush of refugees from Syria.

Following the meeting with King Abdullah, World Bank staff worked with the Jordanian authorities to pinpoint where public services were most stressed. The health sector emerged as an area in need of immediate support.  Since January of last year, the number of Syrian refugees seeking primary health care has risen from around 60 to 16,000. Hospital intakes have soared from 300 to over 10,000. And communicable diseases like TB, polio, and measles – previously eliminated in Jordan – have begun making a comeback. Medicine and vaccines have declined to dangerously low levels.

As the carnage in Syria rages and global leaders urge resolution, there are vital areas outside the political realm where the international community can act quickly and have an impact.

First, and fundamentally, there must be continued – and greater – support for the United Nations for its courageous work for Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Strong support should also go to the Lebanese government and international partners for harboring and assisting refugees in Lebanon.  It is absolutely crucial that these efforts continue, and that donors maintain support for life-saving operations. 

Second, it is critical that we look to help the neighbors who are in turn helping the victims of Syria’s war.  Let us ensure that conflict finds no further foothold than it already has. Our support to Jordan will shore up its health budget and provide basic foods and commodities for the country’s poorest communities. But pressure on services to citizens and refugees will continue to grow and education, water, sanitation, and waste disposal will all need urgent attention soon, calling on donor support.  

Finally, we need to work even more closely with local authorities in Jordan’s border towns to help them put in place a more resilient capacity to deliver basic public services. We are also working closer than ever with the United Nations to strike the right balance between providing immediate, first-responder humanitarian assistance and the healing, mending, and rebuilding that countries need to recover from conflict over the longer-term.

The imperative for change that has swept the Arab world has given birth to great hope but also inflamed divisions old and new. While global leaders urge all sides to end violence and find peaceful ways ahead, the international community must be quick to act where we can help with timely and targeted support, as in Jordan, so that people can feel safe and hold onto their aspirations for the future.

First published in The Guardian Online - Global Development