Every night, under the cover of darkness, thousands of refugees are fleeing the violence in Syria and seeking safe haven in an exodus that has now been going on for more than a year. By the end of August, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated there were 228,976 refugees needing assistance in neighbouring countries. Far more have left but are relying on friends, family or their own resources. The situation is placing Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq under increasing strain. Between them these four countries have taken in the vast majority of those fleeing and the pressure is beginning to tell.
"The refugee exodus is having a significant impact on the society, economy and security of host countries," Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Security Council on 30 August. "The large-scale arrival of refugees brings a significant economic cost, leads to complex social consequences and has a serious impact on local infrastructure and the environment.
"By keeping their borders open to refugees in such a complex and challenging environment, the countries that neighbour Syria are providing a very positive example to the world. But their capacities are being severely tested."
Jordan registered refugee numbers mask higher figure
The situation in Jordan is emblematic of what is happening in the region and the strain that is being placed on authorities. The UNHCR says it has registered some 70,000 refugees in the country, but the actually number of Syrians seeking shelter there is far higher. The government in Amman estimates that some 177,000 Syrians have fled across the border to escape the violence.
At least 140,000 of this number are living in towns and cities across Jordan, but a large proportion are also being housed at the Zaatari camp in the north of the country. The site, which opened on 30 July, was originally designed to accommodate 20,000 people, but its population now stands at more than 26,000. A second camp is due to open at nearby Raba Sahrahn later this month, providing space for a further 20,000 refugees.
Their new hosts certainly do not lack experience in dealing with displaced people. There are two million Palestinians in Jordan, as well as some 450,000 Iraqis who are treated as temporary guests rather than refugees. But while hospitality has been plentiful, other things are in shorter supply in Jordan.
At a press conference in Amman on 1 September, the Minister of Planning & International Cooperation, Jafar Hassan, said that the cost of looking after the 140,000 refugees around the country would be $160m this year and $200m in 2013. "The state cannot bear this burden in view of the current economic and financial conditions and the austerity programme it had launched, as well as the lack of direct aid from donors to offset such expenses," he said.
A string of charities and UN agencies have been ramping up their operations in the country to help deal with the crisis. The UNHCR is taking the lead in providing for those living at Zaatari, helped by the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation, the World Food Programme and others.
Jordan facing key economic challenges
The speed and volume with which the refugees are arriving means it is hard to plan effectively. Some nights a few hundred arrive, but in one 24-hour period in late August almost 4,600 crossed the frontier. On average, the figure is running at almost 1,500 refugees a day.