Inside a Syrian refugee camp

AMMAN, Jordan Eighteen hundred Syrian refugees crossed the border into Jordan under the cover of night Thursday. On Friday afternoon, President Obama will be welcomed by Jordan's King Abdullah with much fanfare in the capitol city of Amman.

Behind closed doors the two are expected to discuss how the U.S. can help the kingdom shoulder the massive financial strain that the Syrian refugees have put on the already struggling Jordanian economy. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry estimates that nearly one million Syrian refugees have taken shelter within its borders during the past two years of the Syrian civil war.

In a country of six million people, nearly 9 percent of the population is now made up of Syrian refugees. The Jordanian government estimates that this influx of people put a $500 million strain on the kingdom in 2012. Some have taken refuge in the homes of friends or families in Jordan. Damascus license plates now dot the cars in Jordanian traffic jams. Other refugees have made homes in the plastic tents inside the camps set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other aid agencies.

The largest refugee camp is called Zaatari. It is just an hour-and-a-half from Amman. Mr. Obama has no plans to visit the refugee camp.

At this point, it does not appear that Secretary of State John Kerry will either. Security is an issue. United Nations workers at the camp candidly admit that the Jordanian police do not have full control of the 200,000 or so people who now live there. After sundown, women are often attacked and the U.N. workers stay within fenced-in areas to conduct their work at night.

Three-quarters of those living in these camps are women and children.

The Za'atari refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border.
Toula Vlahou

CBS News visited the Zaatari refugee camp to speak to some of the refugees and U.N. workers. It is made up of white plastic UNHCR tents - mostly paid for by the U.S. - and some mobile homes recently donated by the Kuwaiti government. It is now the fourth largest city in Jordan.

One woman, who called herself Um Ahmed, appeared to be pregnant. The thin woman had a stomach like a basketball that protruded underneath her long dress and five young children swirling around her. She told CBS News that her stomach was distended due to a liver and stomach ailment. She complained that she had not been given medical care during the 25 days that she'd been living in the Zaatari camp. The U.N. still considered her a new arrival and she says they told her that she had to wait for care.

There are medical camps inside the Zaatari camp, but U.N. workers say that many refugees are unaware of the available services.

Khaled - Um Ahmed's youngest son - had received medical help for a broken leg that she said he suffered after a rocket attack caused a wall to collapse on his leg. A cast covered the 5-year-old boy's leg all the way up to his thigh. Um Ahmed explained that the rocket attack on their neighborhood in Homs, Syria, was what made her decide to flee Syria.

"If Bashar falls I'll return. If he stays we cannot go back. They're killing children with knives - slaughtering them," Um Ahmed told CBS News.

Five of Um Ahmed's children made it with her and her husband to Zaatari. Their 15-year-old son Ahmed stayed behind. She explained that the military forced men under 40 to stay and fight in Bashar al Assad's army.

Among the 20,000 white plastic UNHCR tents that make up Zaatari camp, there are many stories like that of Um Ahmed and her family. The U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees Antonio Guterres told CBS News that the humanitarian crisis is becoming a national-security threat to an already brittle Middle East.

"We could have, because of the Syria conflict, an explosion in the Middle East, and I think it's in everybody's interest, it's not just a matter of generosity, it's a matter of enlightened self-interest to do everything to stop this war," Guterres said. He has been lobbying in Washington for the White House and Congress to pledge more financial support to its efforts.

He said that the U.N. has less than 30 percent of the money that it needs to care for Syrian refugees that have fled to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

The U.S. is the largest financial contributor to the humanitarian effort. It has paid out around $385 million in aid. Arab diplomats and U.N. officials privately complain that the Arab countries of the Gulf region have been much less generous. The U.S. fears that the hemorage of refugees will only get worse as the violence escalates.

Anne Richard is the State Department's point person on refugees. In her words, "Our worst-case scenarios are happening." As the fighting has intensified, so too has the exodus. She said the amount that the U.S. can contribute is limited in this tight economic climate.

"I'm very worried -- if we could see more response from the rest of the world, I think I'd start feeling better. I really want to see other governments putting money on the table."

The Za'atari refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border.
Toula Vlahou

The United Nations is also discussing ways to alleviate the influx of refugees by providing safe passage to aid workers so that they can deliver support inside Syria. The so-called "humanitarian corridor" is a potential way to slow the flow of refugees out. European countries like Italy and France have spoken out in favor of a humanitarian corridor, but the U.S. has not publicly voiced support. Providing security to aid workers inside of Syria may require a military presence or some hybrid form of boots on the ground.

Privately, Jordanian officials say that their country needs financial support to deal with the refugee crisis, partly because its own population is restless over economic conditions. By virtue of geography and open borders, Jordan has welcomed floods of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees through the decades, but officials say that this crisis comes at a particularly dangerous time for the country. The U.N. has warned Jordan and other countries that the influx of Syrians could spike to as many as three million refugees this year. That strain has many in the kingdom wondering at what point will Jordan have to close its borders and refuse to help.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.