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Weary Jordan pines for Mideast peace as its cauldron of refugees grows

Descending by helicopter into the Zaatari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, you get a good view of the more than 120,000 Syrians forced to live here, cheek by jowl in container–sized prefabricated shelters and flapping canvas tents. What you don't see is the effect that this and other flows of refugees have on Jordan, a country with the 144th highest gross domestic product per capita in the world, and little capacity to care for them all.

More than 500,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in Jordan; hundreds of thousands more live in several communities across the country in non-camp situations. They all put pressure on Jordan's health and education services, its electrical infrastructure, and are a major drain on the country's increasingly limited water supplies, and a challenge for its security.

Mr. Harper, who arrived in Jordan Wednesday evening and flew into Zaatari camp on Friday, has come to help relieve at least one of those strains: education facilities. More than half of the refugees in Jordan are of school age and Mr. Harper has announced Canada will provide $100-million on top of previous contributions specifically for schools.

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It's a start. But we've been down this path before.

I recall another Canadian, former prime minister Joe Clark, then Canada's external affairs minister, who dropped by helicopter in 1986 to a Palestinian refugee community in the Jordan Valley. He came to the impoverished Jordanian farm area to officially open a school (funded largely by Canadians) for which the people in North Shuneh had been waiting 38 years.

Before the new facility was built, the 1,300 kids attended school in filthy, mud-brick classrooms. Scorpions and snakes were the worst problems and children were frequently being treated for stings and sickness.

The Palestinians were the first displaced people to whom Jordan gave refuge. They flooded across the Jordan River in 1948-9 from battles in the parts of former British-Mandate Palestine that became Israel, and set up house wherever they could. They expected to remain only a matter of weeks.

Almost two million (original refugees and their descendants) remain in Jordan today; more than 300,000 of them still living in camps.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also fled to Jordan from their troubles in their own country in the 1990s and 2000s. About 30,000 remain in Jordan, most in need of care from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of those with money have moved on as immigrants to third countries, such as Canada.

All these refugees have presented enormous challenges to Jordan's infrastructure and water supply.

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Most recently, in the past three years, have come the Syrians, most of them without money to move on. Among them are tens of thousands of Palestinians who are two-time refugees. They fled to Syria from Palestine in 1948; now they and their descendants have fled from Syria. In Jordan, they are kept apart from other refugees from Syria and not allowed to enter Jordanian cities. Jordan doesn't want any more Palestinians as permanent residents.

King Abdullah has appealed to the international community for help. The situation can't go on, he argues. Jordanians fear that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad triumphs in the civil war that has wracked his country, many of the Syrian refugees will not be allowed to return home. If the Syrian opposition should win, many of the refugees would be allowed to go home, but Jordanians worry that other Syrians – Alawites and others – will take their place seeking refuge in Jordan.

The answer is to help get the people back to their home countries again.

Certainly the Palestinians would like to return, if not to their home towns now in Israel, then to a viable Palestinian state. And Jordanians would like nothing better than to see many of them go.

When Joe Clark opened that Jordan Valley school for refugees, the children could look out the windows of their new classrooms across the river, south of the Sea of Galilee, to Israel. Many had drawn pictures of the land with Israelis shown as enemies, some being stabbed and bleeding.

The longer refugees remain in a country the harder it is for them to go back.

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Israel's greatest friends in this region have been the Hashemites, descended from the Prophet Mohammed, who have ruled Jordan since 1921. They were put in charge by Britain, which had held a mandate over both Palestine and Transjordan, as it then was known, and owed a favour to the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca. The Sharif had encouraged Arabs in the region to rise up against the Ottomans in the First World War.

The Sharif's son, Abdullah, was made Emir of Jordan, and later, King.

Abdullah was not entirely opposed to the Zionists who moved to Palestine in the first half of the 20th century. He was known to have met with Zionist representatives and vowed to live in peace with them. Though he ordered his Arab Legion of soldiers into battle against the nascent Israeli state in 1948, he was assassinated in 1951 by an irate Palestinian who claimed he hadn't fought hard enough.

Abdullah's grandson, Hussein, served as King after him. He too sought ways to live beside the Israelis in peace. He was known to have met secretly on numerous occasions with the chief of staff to then prime minister Levi Eshkol (often with the Israeli pulling his small fishing boat up alongside the King's yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba).

In later years, Hussein would meet with Shimon Peres, now Israel's President, in the office of the Jewish doctor the two men shared in London, England.

These men wanted very much to solve the problem between their peoples, to end the refugee crisis and to live in mutually profitable peace. Today they would welcome some help from Israel.

If the current peace process between Israelis and Palestinians should fail, the cauldron of refugees in Jordan may bubble over and scald their Jordanian hosts.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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