The current refugee crisis has been deemed the worst one of our era, with people seeking refuge from violence, persecution, and even climate refugees. Millions have been displaced and resettled in countries across the globe, with the largest number of refugees currently coming from Syria. With the crisis in Syria being one of its magnitude and producing so many refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees referred to the Syrian crisis as “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time” (UNHCR) in 2016. Many refugees, particularly Syrians who became refugees following the 2011 Arab Spring, have resettled in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. However, these countries have reacted differently to the refugees who have come to their doors. For example, the countries of Jordan and Turkey both had different reactions to the refugee crisis and each country offered different programs to help refugees resettle in their country. In this paper I will be comparing the response of Jordan and Turkey to the current refugee crisis, how prepared they were, what they are doing to help refugees in their country, how international refugee and human rights law may play a part in that response, and if the global community as a whole was equipped to respond to a refugee crisis of this magnitude.
The specific refugee crisis that I will be focusing on in this paper is the Syrian refugee crisis following the Arab Spring in early 2011. The revolution started in Syria with peaceful protests in the spring of 2011, asking for governmental reform and change after decades of oppression. The regime of President Bashar Al-Assad responded to these civilian protests with harsh aggression, causing thousands of known casualties, destruction of towns, imprisonment of activists and creating millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. According to the organization World Vision, 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced globally and 25.4 million people are refugees; with 12.6 million of that number being refugees from Syria. Syrian refugees mostly resettled in neighboring countries, World Vision saying “most Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East; including 3.5 million in Turkey, the largest number of refugees hosted by any country,” (World Vision). In comparison, according to UNHCR, the United States took in about 53,000 refugees in 2017. Turkey has policies and programs in place to assist refugees with resettling in the country. Some of these programs include assistance programs backed by the European Union that offer an allowance to refugees in Turkey via a debit card. Other programs allow Syrians to enroll in Turkish state universities. A study in 2014 said “Turkey initially did not demand international assistance, and boasted that it could handle matters alone. As the crisis deepened, Turkey’s efforts to mobilize the international community have not kept pace with the number of refugees,” (Afacan 2). But based on my research, Turkey should be able to sustain taking in refugees for another few years. Refugees also resettle in other neighboring countries, with many in Jordan. According to the Jordan Times, there were 655,624 Syrian refugees in Jordan who were registered with the UNHCR by the end of 2017 (Ghazal 2017). However, the Jordanian government claims there are thousands more of Syrian refugees in the country who are unregistered with the UNHCR. This makes it difficult for the Jordanian government and authorities to properly assist refugees, allocate and ask for funding, and to provide the resources necessary in this situation.
Countries are bound by international law when it comes to accepting refugees and refugee resettlement. International law concerning refugees includes the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. The document has 46 articles pertaining to the rights available to refugees, how states should treat refugees, and defining what it means to be a refugee. One of the articles reads “the Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage earning employment,” (UNHCR 22). This article emphasizes that, in the eyes of the United Nations and in international law, countries must allow lawful refugees the right to work and earn a living. According to the UNHCR, the country of Jordan has taken measures to allow for the employment of refugees who are living in their country, the report saying “The Government of Jordan has taken steps to open formal employment opportunities for Syrians. 46,000 work permits were issued in 2017 alone,” (UNHCR 2018). Though that is the international law, to offer fair employment to legal refugees in a nation, it is not always the case; either due to the national law of sovereign states or from prejudice of nationals of a state to not employ refugees. Additionally, one article of the document discusses how states are not allowed to turn away refugees, or the concept known as “non-refoulement”. Article 33 of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention says “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” (UNHCR 30). This is important to note, as with the recent influx of refugees migrating and seeking asylum over the course of the last decade or so, since states have been refusing to accept refugees. Once the refugees have arrived into a country, that country, under international law dictated by the United Nations, cannot expel a refugee back to the country they came from of their return will have a threat to their lives and livelihood. These articles and terms under international law are in place to ensure that refugees are treated fairly and have access to specific rights.
Jordan is home to a large number of refugees, with refugee camps all over the country and along the borders. In January of 2016, I volunteered as a translator on a medical mission to refugee camps in Jordan. The medical group I volunteered with worked in multiple camps around the country, including the well-known Al-Zaatari refugee camp — which mainly houses Syrian refugees — and Palestinian refugee camps. I immediately noticed a difference between the Syrian and Palestinian camps. The camps that housed Syrians, like the Al-Zaatari camp, were exactly that: camps. They were tents or UNHCR given metal “boxes” placed close together with mud pathways paved between them as a makeshift road. The Palestinian refugee camps, on the other hand, were strikingly different. They almost resembled a town, with full — granted, windowless and often without heating or gas — apartment buildings and schools. These are referred to as urban camps. The United Nations is aware of these urban camps throughout the Middle East, a report saying “The response to the Syrian refugee crisis was itself prefigured and influenced by the Palestinian refugee crisis, which dates back to 1948. Within the last decade, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has set in motion reforms that emphasize development in Palestinian refugee camps, and has done so through an urban development approach,” (Gabiam 385). This shows that though the urban camps have become the standard norm for Palestinian refugees, this trend may not last. While on the medical mission at the refugee camps, I was stunned to learn that many of the inhabitants of the Palestinian camps, though some were in their mid thirties, had never lived outside the camp. What was more shocking to learn was that some of those very same adults had never seen a doctor before our team arrived to the camp. I was left wondering what the future can hold for refugees, what the international community can do for refugees, and if the Syrian refugees in Jordan would have the same fate as the Palestinians who came decades before them.
On the medical mission to refugee camps around Jordan, we saw a plethora of different medical cases. Based on my observations, there were similarities between the medical cases we saw at the camps that were predominantly Syrian refugees, and those that were predominantly Palestinian refugees. There were also differences. We saw many causes of lung cancer and pulmonary diseases in both camps, due to cigarette smoking, that the doctors from the organization I was with, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) assumed was partly due to the lack of awareness to health education, as well as a reactionary response to depression. With the children in both camps, there was sufficient vitamin deficiency that children who have access to the regular food groups and vitamin supplements would not encounter. Other cases we saw, especially in the Palestinian camps, were of preventable illnesses and diseases. This raises the question of how much work and aid to refugees is granted by the Jordanian government and international bodies such as the United Nations, and how much of it is from NGOs or nonprofits.
The refugee crisis is not new to the region of the Middle East. Historically, Jordan has taken in refugees in the past, specifically Palestinian refugees after the creation of Israel. This refugee crisis started in 1948. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Palestinian refugee crisis has been an issue for decades, saying:
The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the subsequent 1948 War generated one of the longest-lasting and most politically fateful refugee waves. Refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as well as in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are constant reminders of the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians in 1947-48. The 1967 June War then displaced many of these 1948 refugees for a second time as it also added to their numbers (Lynch et. al 2017).
Palestinians have been seeking refugees in countries across the Middle East since the last 1940s. Despite many resettling in Jordan, the country of Jordan has limited resources and even the space to take in non-nationals at these high of numbers. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace continues to say that these countries can have difficulty housing refugees and migrants, saying “States like Jordan and Lebanon, already poorly equipped to provide security and services — from education and health care to basic foodstuffs and affordable housing – to their citizens now face the demands of millions of non-nationals,” (Lynch et. al 2017). This can be overwhelming to Jordan as a country and to Jordanian nationals. The article continues to address who is helping refugees, the authors writing “In some cases, services required by refugees have been outsourced to or taken on by NGOs and international organizations,” (Lynch et. al 2017). The role of NGOs, international organizations, and nonprofits in assisting refugees is important to a country like Jordan whose refugee population in relation to their country population is the second highest in the world (UNHCR 2018). It can be difficult to pull together the resources necessary to create programs for refugee assistance, which makes it clear how important it is for the international community to provide assistance and resources to countries who have had a large number of refugees resettling on their land.
Most refugees in Jordan and Turkey are not housed in typical refugee camps, but rather many are living in urban areas or in small towns. The refugees in these conditions lead different lives than those in standard refugee camps, based on the country — Jordan or Turkey — and the area they live in and what is available to them. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addressed this issue of many refugees living outside of camps, saying “This poses serious conceptual and political questions when refugee populations in states such as Jordan and Lebanon, where refugee populations (Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian) constitute well more than a quarter of the total population and most are not housed within geographically distinct refugee camps,” (Lynch et. al 2017). When refugees are living outside of camps, they likely aren’t registered through the UNHCR; making it difficult to track and assess refugee needs. With refugees in urban areas in Jordan rather than in camps, the UNHCR says “The majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas and in poverty: over 80% live below the poverty line. 51% of refugees are children, and 4% are elderly,” (UNHCR 2018). Additionally, it is more difficult for those refugees to access some of the resources available to them under international programs. An essay on Syrian refugees addresses the number that live outside of camps, saying
More than 80 percent of registered Syrian refugees in neighboring countries live in communities and cities rather than designated refugee camps. The influx of large numbers of refugees to urban settings has dramatically shifted the demographic composition in some areas and strained basic social services like water, sanitation, food, health care, housing, and electricity, (Ostrand 262).
When refugees aren’t registered, and/or they move straight into urban settings without a government-assisted initiative transitioning them from a camp to that life, there can be many complications and potential difficulties. Of the 655,624 UNHCR registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, “only 21.3 per cent lived in refugee camps, according to the UN agency, which indicated that around 516,000 of the registered Syrian refugees lived in urban areas in Jordan by the end of 2017,” (Ghazal 2017). This can be an indicator to why Jordan became overwhelmed with the amount of refugees their country has become home to, and one of the reasons why the nation closed its borders to refugees in the summer of 2016.
There are refugee camps in Turkey, but many of the Syrian refugees who’ve resettled in Turkey live in cities and towns, not in camps. This is intentional. The Turkish government wants to transition refugees out of camps and into Turkish society. According to an article published in The Guardian, there is a program that offers a monetary monthly allowance to refugees, the article saying “Through the Emergency Social Safety Net, an EU-backed program that assists refugees 1.25 million refugees across Turkey – of which 90% are Syrians – to benefit,” (Summers). Because Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees globally — 3.9 million refugees — programs such as this one that are backed by international bodies can be of great assistance. Turkey also allowed Syrians to enroll at seven state universities “Since the competition for university places in Turkey is high, with entry determined through performance in a nationwide exam, the state’s policy of allowing Syrian students to register at Turkish universities with neither an exam nor paperwork as prerequisite triggered anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments among many Turks,” (Afacan 3). Allowing Syrians to enroll at Turkish universities can benefit both the Syrian refugees themselves and the country of Turkey as a whole. By providing Syrians with the tool of education, they are ensuring that those refugees spend the rest of their lives in Turkey, and in turn give back to the country through the work they take on following their education. However, the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments that Isa Afacan mentions in the article have become prevalent in the country, which can create a toxic environment that refugees may not want to live in. Despite this, many Turkish cities have a high number of Syrian residents. According to The Brookings Institution, an international think tank based out of the United States, Kilis, which lies on the border with Syria, hosts more Syrian refugees than Turkish residents, the article saying “In Istanbul, there are at least 560,000 registered Syrian refugees. Zeytinburnu, a district of the city, hosts more than 50,000 of them,” (Brookings Institute). These are refugees living outside of camps that have turned small towns in Turkey to be predominantly Syrian. This is also seen in the Turkish towns of Gaziantep and Reyhanli, which, based on personal testimonies of refugees and Syrians I’ve spoken with, have become so widely inhabited by Syrians that many people don’t need to learn Turkish; Arabic is enough. The Turkish government has many programs in place to allow for a smooth and safe resettlement of refugees in Turkey.
One of the Articles of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention dictates that it is in violation of international law to return a refugee to his or her original country where they may be at risk of persecution. However, Jordan closed its borders to refugees two years ago. The New York Times reported in the summer of 2016 that, following a suicide bombing attack on the Syrian-Jordanian border that resulted in the death of four Jordanians, the Jordanian government decided to close off its borders and no longer allow refugees to resettle in their country. The article reads “Jordan sealed its last entry points for Syrian refugees after a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb in a no-man’s land on the border, killing four Jordanian soldiers, a police officer and a civil defense officer,” (Sweis 2016). The Jordanian governmental authorities citing their sovereignty as reason to allow this law to pass and for other members of the international community to understand and respect this change, saying “The statement, released several hours later by the Jordanian Armed Forces, declared the northern and northeastern borders a military zone and warned that any movement of vehicles or individuals there without permission would be seen as a hostile act,” (Sweis 2016). However, this has not stopped refugees from migrating to the Jordanian border in hopes of being allowed resettlement, refuge, and safety into the country. This strip of land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders has become known as The Berm, and it has become home to thousands of refugees; stranded between the two countries on what is essentially no-man’s land. This area, known as the Syrian berm, has become the more well-known Rukban refugee camp. An essay on Rukban camp and those who lived there reported how it is unsafe, saying:
For more than a year, refugees have been fleeing the civil war in Syria and making their way to the Syrian side of the berm, which was once known for little more than desert sand, scorpions and snakes but is now a populated area vulnerable to smugglers, human traffickers and drug dealers. The area is home to a demilitarized zone that prevents people from crossing into Jordan but gives relief agencies a place to provide assistance to refugees. A sprawling informal camp on the Syrian side of the border has grown to house tens of thousands of people who fled conflict in places like Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra (Sweis 2016).
Because of it being no-man’s land, it is difficult for international assistance to reach the people living in Rukban camp / the berm, and according to NPR “Aid groups, who have no direct access to the three-year-old camp, track its growth by analyzing satellite images showing thousands of makeshift tents clustered between two berms — earthen embankments in a no-man’s land along Jordan’s far northeastern border. Jordan says the camp, located in no-man’s land between the two countries, is infiltrated by ISIS and won’t allow any aid workers to go there. With limited food getting through, some children are in danger of starving,” (Arraf 2017). But news of the camp has been kept quiet, due to the camp being in an international grey-area as far as legality. A report on Rukban camp says “For the past two years, aid officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about Rukban, afraid of upsetting the Jordanian government and jeopardizing their chances of access to the camp. Jordan, which has taken in some 650,000 Syrian refugees, has said it is at the breaking point and called for more international aid,” (Arraf 2017). The Rukban camp is another example of how Jordan was ill-equipped to handle the refugee crisis on their own, and emphasizes the importance of international aid and NGO work in the region.
There are many large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and many smaller, local nonprofits that assist refugees and provide aid in countries where there is a large population of refugees, such as in Turkey and Jordan. These organizations provide a range of assistance; from medical and health education, to food and shelter, to offering programs that educate children and adults on the culture or allowing them to continue their education. Karam Foundation is one of the organizations that does work in Turkey. A nonprofit based out of the United States, Karam Foundation focuses on humanitarian aid, education, and awareness. According to their mission statement, Karam Foundation works to develop “innovative education programs for Syrian refugee youth, distribute smart aid to Syrian families, and fund sustainable development projects initiated by Syrians for Syrians,” (Karam Foundation). The organization has community houses in Reyhanli and Istanbul that have educational classes for children and adults. These community houses called Karam House. “Karam House is a community innovation center designed for Syrian refugee youth. It is a safe space where youth can grow with confidence, learn life-skills, and think critically. Karam House is an investment in Syria’s youth, providing inspiration, innovation, and technology to Syrian refugee kids to build a future for themselves,” (Karam Foundation). The organization recently launched a new initiative, called 10,000 Leaders, that aims to support 10,000 Syrians across 10 years to become the new “leaders” of Syria or within their community, from varying disciplines, with the main goal of the initiative being to inspire and empower Syrian refugees. Though this type of work may not constitute as what one typically thinks of humanitarian aid to look like, this is still deeply important. With so many of refugees being children — as the UNHCR reported, 51% of refugees are children — a program such as this one at Karam House allows refugee children to not have their lives thrown off track, and lets them know and believe that they are still able to receive an education and become successful. The programs that Karam House in Turkey has for adult refugees are equally as important. This can help them move past the traumas they’ve experienced and allow them to create a sustainable life for themselves in their new home of Turkey. Based on my research, a program such as this one has yet to exist in Jordan. This could potentially help the issue of the overflux of refugees in Jordan, by providing ways of individual empowerment and creating a sense of community within those who’ve been displaced.
Another organization that works with refugees is the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). SAMS is a large U.S.-based NGO that provides medical relief to those suffering around the world, with their primary focus being on providing medical aid to refugees inside Syria and in the countries where there are many refugees. In regard to their work in Jordan, the SAMS website reads “In Jordan, SAMS operates medical relief programs, providing free medical services to Syrian refugees in Al-Zaatari Camp and in urban areas throughout the country. In November 2017, SAMS opened its own multi-specialty medical center in Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp, with the goal of providing consistent, quality care to patients living in the camp- home to 80,00 Syrian refugees,” (SAMS). The Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has become the fourth largest city in the country. The primary health care provider in that clinic is the Syrian American Medical Society. The organization provides free medical examinations by volunteer doctors that come from all over the world, has an on-site pharmacy with medications that are allowed into the regulated refugee camps per Jordanian law, and even performing medical and dental procedures. Because this is a non-profit doing this degree of work, one has to ask: where does the U.N. and the UNHCR fall short? Are NGOs expected to fill in the gaps?
Refugee camps in Turkey seemed to be better equipped to help refugees transition out of camps and offering services. However, NGOs are still present to offer assistance. SAMS also does work with refugees and Syrians resettled in Turkey. In Turkey, SAMS leads a number of relief operations. Their website reads that the organization’s Turkish office “oversees our operations in four governorates in northern Syria, including Idlib, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama,” (SAMS). The organization has a positive relationship with the Turkish government that allowed them to conduct organizational business by having a branch in Gaziantep, Turkey, and also providing medical services and medical missions. SAMS says that “In 2017, SAMS provided 45,731 medical services to refugees and vulnerable individuals living in Turkey … Since September 2017, SAMS has supported El-Emel Hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey. It is the only hospital run mainly by Syrian NGOs and Syrian doctors with prior approval from the Turkish authorities,” (SAMS). SAMS also has dental clinics in Turkey treating refugees. All of these clinics and operations provide free aid. The difference between the SAMS clinics in Jordan and the ones in Turkey is that refugees tend not to spend as much time living in the actual camps as they do in Jordan, and they phase out into life in Turkey. This can also create a difference in the type of medical services offered by the organization and the assessments of what is needed by the population they are serving.
For countries that are smaller, have less resources to offer, or in what is not an ideal geopolitical location; taking in refugees is not a small task. Jordan as a country is overwhelmed with the number of refugees they have had in the last few decades. Between Palestinian refugees who arrived in the late 1940s, and Syrian refugees after 2011, the small country’s resources are being stretched too thin. In an article titled “Humanitarianism, Development, and Security in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis is analyzed, reading:
We must also acknowledge that while, for a long time, Palestinians stood out from other
refugees due to their protracted exile, protracted refugee crises have now become a common feature of the global world that we inhabit. The Middle East is, therefore, but a microcosm of a changing world in which refugee crises are becoming part of the normal state of affairs. Traditional humanitarian discourse in response to forced displacement, with its emphasis on emergency and short-term relief aid, is giving way to a new discourse. This is a discourse that not only emphasizes refugees’ self-reliance and long-term resilience but also is engaged in re-evaluating encampment as a response to displacement and in recognizing refugees’ right to the city, (Gabiam 385).
In this article published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Nell Gabiam makes the distinction clear that focusing on short-term relief aid in the international community’s humanitarian response to the refugee crisis is not effective. The humanitarian response to refugees should be a long-term, sustainable, and achievable plan. Additionally, with the similarities and differences between Turkey and Jordan, Turkey’s geopolitical position is different than Jordan’s. This can make Turkey’s making its relationships with other countries different, and the impact of refugee resettlement different from Jordan’s and even other countries in the Middle East. Part of Turkey is in Europe, while another part in Asia. Though Turkey is not a member state of the European Union, the country still has strong political and economic ties with EU nations. Turkey is also on the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. This is important to take into consideration, because though Turkey has housed and welcomed the most refugees in the world, many refugees use Turkey as a “pit stop” on their journey of passage to Europe. Starting in around 2014, refugees from Syria and many other countries began arriving at the shores of Greece, having left on lifeboats and rafts sold to them by smugglers in coastal cities in Turkey.
Both Jordan and Turkey are overcapacity with the refugees they can resettle in their countries, and are struggling to maintain the assistance they provide to refugees. If the international community was more receptive and has a quicker and better response to the refugee crisis, much of this could have been avoided. Jordan and Turkey would have better resources to aid refugees; ranging from the conditions of the actual camps themselves and the humanitarian assistance available to refugees. All countries who take in refugees, especially those with a high number or with large refugee camps, need to have a long-term humanitarian plan in place for those refugees. This should be regulated internationally, through the United Nations, with the same goals for all refugees but including specific provisions for each country. By doing so, refugees will be sure to have a life following their journey to the camp or to a new country. This makes it easier on the country; because there is a clear plan to transition refugees from camps and into society, therefore allowing the refugees to work and give back to the community they are now living in, thus stimulating the economy of their host country and adding to the country’s academic and other advancements. Finally, it is crucial that human rights be recognized with refugees, first and foremost. All human rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with specific refugee rights in the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and even the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was put into place in 2007. These rights need to be followed and countries, states, or governing bodies who violate these rights must be held accountable. Lastly, seeing this current refugee crisis unfold clearly demonstrates that the world was not ready for this refugee crisis. Based on research and studies that have been recently released, there will be more refugees to come; either from climate or war. The world needs to do a better job at responding to these crises and to accept refugees. If that means creating new policy, or mending what already exists, then that is the step that needs to be taken.
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