Kilian Kleinschmidt, a hardened veteran of international humanitarian crises, finds it too painful to listen to the stories of death and destruction from refugees fleeing Syria’s relentless civil war, as they flood across the border to a crowded camp in northern Jordan.
“I am avoiding talking to people who come in as much as possible because the stories are horrendous,” Mr. Kleinschmidt, who runs the Zaatari camp for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a phone interview from Jordan.
“The more the conflict continues, the more the stories become difficult to listen to. We now have people coming from the areas where chemical attacks have taken place and people from areas that have been locked up for quite some time.”
Some Syrians also are fleeing areas afflicted with an outbreak of polio, as the highly contagious disease threatens to spread among children who have never received vaccinations against the crippling virus.
With a population of more than 100,000, Zaatari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world and the fourth-largest population center in Jordan, a fact that prompts Mr. Kleinschmidt to half-jokingly describe himself as “international mayor of Zaatari.”
A U.N. report over the summer said the camp was “lawless in many ways” and found it to be plagued by an organized crime network, a claim denied by Jordanian officials.
“The overall challenge has been security, the relationship between the refugees, police and ourselves,” Mr. Kleinschmidt said.
Besides posing security challenges, Syria’s civil war is producing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis with hordes of refugees stretching the resources and good will of nearby countries.
The United Nations estimates that more than 2.2 million Syrians have fled their country since the start of the war against President Bashar Assad’s regime in March 2011.
Most of these refugees are in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They often live in overpopulated camps or in cities and towns where they compete with the local population for jobs, medical care and scarce resources.
Women and children make up a majority of the refugee population.
Many of the children do not attend school. They are exploited as child labor and often sexually assaulted. In some instances, they are preyed on by armed opposition groups looking for recruits to join the war in Syria.
“These refugee camps are ripe recruitment grounds for extremists. Rebels are already recruiting child soldiers from these camps,” said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director at Amnesty International USA. “The clock is ticking on this crisis.”
Host nations are worried about the security challenges posed by the refugees.
In Turkey, Syrian rebels frequently use camps and the areas around them “as off-duty resting places to visit their families, receive medical services and purchase supplies,” according to an International Crisis Group report.
In Zaatari, the al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group Nusrah Front’s overt presence has receded under the watchful eyes of Jordanian security forces. Until recently, Zaatari was the scene of near daily riots involving refugees angry over conditions at the camp.
The refugees are wearing out their welcome in many other ways.
The financial burden they pose has set back Jordan’s economic recovery, according to the United Nations. As competition for jobs has risen, so has unemployment. Wages have fallen, but the costs of basic goods have soared.
Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Antoine Chedid described the impact of the refugees on his country as an existential threat.
“Lebanon is in danger because of this problem,” Mr. Chedid said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington last week. “The price of shouldering the Syrian crisis is proving too much to bear.”
The more than 812,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are urban refugees, who live not in camps but in cities and towns.
“As this situation — expected to be temporary — dragged, a sense of weariness toward the refugees has been growing among host communities, even the most supportive ones,” said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The state resources are already very limited and Syrian presence is stretching these resources to a breaking point,” she said.
The weariness is beginning to show.
Jordan, which houses more than 540,000 Syrian refugees, has turned back hundreds more, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who have been living in Syria, and those without proper identity papers, Amnesty International says.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Momani told The Jordan Times that the country “has not and will not close its borders to Syrians seeking safety and security.”
However, Mr. Momani declined to discuss the categories of people Amnesty International says have been turned away from the border.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II is worried that by next year the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan could account for 20 percent of his country’s population.
Since August, Iraq also has taken in a deluge of refugees from the northern parts of Syria, a sign of the deteriorating situation in even these rebel-held areas where Islamist opposition groups have sought to establish control.
“There is a vacuum of security in those areas. That’s why people are leaving their homes and their cities,” said Yousif Mahmood, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in northern Iraq.
Of the more than 220,000 Syrian refugees in Kurdish northern Iraq, 60 percent live in urban areas.
The U.N. has raised the number of people it estimates to be in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria to 9.3 million, of whom 6.5 million are displaced from their homes but have not left the country.
“A solution [to the war] has not been found, so now we have reached these staggering, catastrophic figures,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.