Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson went to Jordan over the holiday weekend to meet with Syrian refugees—he left a completely unchanged man.
Despite meeting with families who fled ISIS to live in an overcrowded camp, Carson concluded they should stay in the Middle East and proceeded to put forth a policy prescription that experts say would not work.
During the trip, Carson stopped at the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps, where he concluded upon his return that the conditions there were surprisingly nice. He left out the fact that many women are economically forced into prostitution and the Free Syrian Army recruits young men within the camps’ confines. One Syrian refugee, who forced to go to the Zaatari camp after being discovered illegally working in Jordan, told The Atlantic: “It’s terrible. I only lasted 24 hours there.”
Carson’s biggest takeaways from the region, besides the political ad his campaign put together over the weekend, were that Syrian refugees should not be resettled in the United States and that the current strategy employed by Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations is functioning quite well.
“I believe that the right policy is to support the refugee program that is in place, that works extremely well, but does not have adequate funding,” Carson said during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “If you do that, you solve that problem without exposing the American people to a population that could be infiltrated with terrorists who want to destroy us.”
Carson hasn’t been shy about his position that Syrian refugees could pose a threat to American safety, analogizing them to “rabid dogs,” just a couple of weeks ago. But to many experts, the suggestion that refugees need not be permitted to come to the United States is a thinly veiled attempt from Carson to pass the buck of responsibility on to other nations.
“It sounds to me like Ben Carson the political campaigner (rather than Ben Carson the scientist) showed up in Jordan, spent a few hours touring around, had some photo-ops, and came away with an idea he probably had going in: better to let someone else deal with these refugees, not the United States,” Courtland Robinson, the deputy director for the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast. “In my view, that is not the kind of leadership that is needed on this issue.”
Robinson agreed with Carson that Syrian refugees are not primarily interested in coming to the United States because the process is arduous, time-consuming and expensive, often viewed as a last resort when remaining near family and returning to a home country is no longer an option.
Yet the idea that refugees could remain in camps like Azraq, where there are over 27,000 residents, is unfeasible as well. And it doesn’t just come down to capacity issues.
Azraq, as Carson acknowledged, can hold more than 100,000 refugees at a time. But economic opportunities for individuals living there are limited and conditions are nowhere near adequate for long-term sustainable living. The Zaatari camp has a reputation for cases of rape and prostitution, many of which go unreported. The Free Syrian Army convinces young men to join their ranks in Zaatari as a means of returning them to their home country.
The UNHCR estimated in July that nearly one-third of the children in these camps are not attending school and 80 babies are born every week in the Zaatari camp.
“If I could move directly to another country, I would not stop for a second, if we ever get such a chance then we will definitely take it,” a man living in the camp told The Guardian in September.
So whatever happiness Carson saw, was probably fairly limited.
“It is true that the refugee camps are shrinking in size and could accommodate more people if necessary, but that’s not to say it’s a good idea to put more people in refugee camps,” Jon Alterman, senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Daily Beast.
“Refugee camps often suffer from organized crime and prostitution. Residents don’t have enough to do, and many have been leaving the camps at the first moment they can. Jordan still has Palestinian refugees living in camps dating from 1948, and I’d suspect they and the Syrians both are wary of following that precedent,” Alterman said. “The solution to this problem is ending the conflict in Syria, not making it more comfortable for people to wait out the war while fighting rages on.”
Part of the low capacity in Azraq can be attributed to the fact that residents began leaving due to extremely high temperatures, lack of electricity, and higher food prices. Many refugees are now taking their chances in urban areas of Jordan just to get out of the camps themselves. But a whopping 86 percent of refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line of $95 a month. The country is already bearing the economic weight of over 630,000 registered refugees struggling to integrate into the country.
“So Ben Carson’s now an instant expert on refugee policy?” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution rhetorically asked The Daily Beast. He suggested that Carson was speaking in wide, uninformed platitudes about the refugee crisis.
“Unless he conducted a full-on survey in [the] Zaatari refugee camp during his short stint in Jordan, he has no way of knowing whether refugees want or don’t want to come to the U.S. His claim, in other words, is evidence-free and quite frankly absurd.”
Hamid also seemed to think that Jordan has had just about as many refugees as it can take.
“The idea that Jordanian camps aren’t ‘full’ is mind-boggling,” he told The Daily Beast. “Jordan has taken in 633,000 Syrian refugees and those are only the registered ones. That means that more than 10 percent of Jordan’s population is now Syrian refugees, which would be the equivalent of having at least 30 million Syrian refugees in the U.S.” It should be noted that the United States plans on admitting 10,000 in the next fiscal year.
“To suggest that Jordan can or should take in more therefore makes little sense,” Hamid continued. “They’re already under considerable strain and it’s remarkable that they’ve been both able and willing to take in so many refugees so far. They’ve gone above and beyond. But Jordan’s economy is struggling under the strain. It’s simply not right—or practical—to ask one country to carry so much of the burden, a country that isn’t exactly resource-rich and has enough problems already. That’s a dangerous proposal.”
On top of this, the World Food Program, which is responsible for providing vouchers for refugees in Middle Eastern countries, had to stop services for a third of Syrian refugees due to budget cuts in September. This includes some 229,000 Syrians in Jordan alone who stopped receiving food aid.
According to Carson, the American people should engage in a “humanitarian drive” to raise the billions of dollars necessary to help refugees get permanently settled in European and Middle Eastern countries.
“All they need is adequate funding. It’s really quite impressive when you go over there and see it,” Carson told the AP in Jordan. “They were a lot happier. They were quite willing to stay there as long as it takes before they can get back home.”
Carson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The idea that Syrian refugees would like to return home is, of course, valid. But in the immediate future, for many, this is completely unfeasible.
So while Carson may have found out that all hope is not lost for those living in Jordanian camps, it seems he still has a lot left to learn.