Jordan’s Syrians Are Leaving — and Many Are Risking Home Rather than Europe

  • Date 29 September 2015
  • Publication VICE News

Jordan's Syrian refugees are disappearing in droves. Those who can afford it are flying to Istanbul, and then paying smugglers to hustle them into unseaworthy boats on a journey to Greece. A growing number of others are going somewhere arguably more dangerous: home.

On September 22, UNHCR Jordan boss Andrew Harper tweeted a photo of a pair of toddlers sat among a haul of luggage: two of the 340 refugees leaving Jordan that day, headed north for Syria.

UNHCR keeps track of how many Syrians head home on the buses that leave Zaatari camp several days a week, and 340 is a new record. It is part of a months-long trend whereby a low number of arrivals from Syria and a growing number of departures mean Jordan is seeing its Syrian population drop.

It's not completely clear how many Syrian refugees live in Jordan. UNHCR has registered around 630,000 people, but government and NGO research suggests the number is around 1 million. For every two who live in a refugee camp, eight live in Jordan's towns and cities, renting shabby to middling accommodation and trying to carve out some normalcy in an increasingly abnormal situation.

Jordan's camps offer a safety backstop: there is food aid, there are medical facilities, schools, and plenty of NGO programming. At Zaatari, there's a sense of community and people have a market street, which means an informal but thriving economy. Azraq camp is the opposite — there are few residents and no market street, which means no economy and, according to several residents interviewed for this story, no hope.

But the real hopelessness is outside the camps, where refugees must fend for themselves.

Unlike in Lebanon, Syrians are forbidden to work in Jordan without a permit, and these are notoriously difficult to arrange. As a result, many Syrians work in the informal economy, in shops, restaurants, and garages for cash in hand. They earn very little and have to avoid detection by the authorities: Syrians caught working illegally have been arrested, jailed and, deported.

Jordan's security, police, and intelligence services run a very professional, tight ship and they are actively looking for Syrians breaking labor laws. Those Syrians who do work illegally say they are terrified, but without working they will starve or be out on the streets.

"I can't do any more here, I need to get out of Jordan. I feel scared all the time that I'll get caught working," 28-year-old Waleed [not his real name] told VICE News. He is from Busra al-Sham in southern Syrian and has been living in Jordan for three years. With a degree in business, he's working six days a week, 10 hours a day, in a supermarket in Amman. He takes home 250 Jordanian dinar ($352) a month.

Waleed is desperate to get to Europe and is weighing up the smuggling option. He'd have to pay for a flight to Istanbul, and then around 3,000 euros ($3,370) for a spot on a boat. The risks are nothing compared to the prolonged nothingness of his life in Jordan, dependent on diminishing aid and staring at a future he describes as "treading water."

"I just want to build a better life and a future by being active again," he said.

Waleed and many other Syrians' lives got markedly tougher in August, when the UN's World Food Program (WFP) was forced to slash funding, effectively cutting off 229,000 people it categorized as "vulnerable" (the 211,000 people it calls "extremely vulnerable" still get 10 dinars per person a month). Those 229,000 people last got food assistance on August 6, but it was only a half-measure at 5 dinars. Now, they are feeling the pressure.

Jonathan Campbell, the WFP's emergency coordinator for the Syria Refugee Operation in Jordan, thinks a drop in food aid is one of the factors driving refugees back over the border.

"Assistance needs to continue now so people don't have to leave — and the ongoing reductions in assistance is one of the reasons people are leaving. We need to keep food vouchers and other essential assistance going. People cannot support their families on nothing," said Campbell.

More middle-class families, or those who haven't exhausted their reserves, are taking advantage of a Syrian Embassy offering new passports, no questions asked, and a closing window to squeeze into Europe. Those who can't afford the airfare and traffickers' fees are looking homewards.

Despite ongoing aerial bombing, including regular barrel bomb attacks on opposition-held civilian areas, many Syrians point to recent gains by the mostly secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Daraa province, just over the border, as a sign that normal life is returning. Around 65 percent of the province is under opposition control, and as yet, no organized Islamic State presence has been established. Desperate and poor in an expensive country that feels more hostile by the week, they're taking their chances.

Earlier this month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the need to provide greater support for refugees in their host countries. The UK has been one of the top donors to WFP's Jordan program and many of the country's most active NGOs, but four years into a refugee crisis that is only growing more hopeless, more aid might not amount to much. People want to work. And the glimmer of hope held out by news channels looping footage of Germany welcoming Syrians is lighting the way for a growing number of families.

"The refugees here are squeezed more and more. The deterioration of the aid system that was set up here to respond to the crisis, this is something ordinary Syrians are feeling — the WFP reductions, people have lost free medical care, they can only work illegally," Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch said.

"People feel like in order to protect their families and have some sort of future they have to try something drastic. In many cases, this means trying to reach Europe by sea," he said.

For some lucky families, hope has come in the form of resettlement, or an offer from a third country. Iman, a pregnant mother of two living in Irbid, is waiting for a call from the Canadian Embassy to tell her that her husband and kids can come in for an interview. A church group in Ontario has agreed to sponsor the family, and the paperwork has been signed, sent, and acknowledged. The family had hoped to start the school year in their new home. Instead, they wait.

"The kids also ask continuously, when will we fly to Canada? We're concerned about the delays. Days are going by so slowly while we wait," she said. Despite assurances by the sponsor group that all is on track, she worries something will happen to derail the dream.

"If this doesn't happen, we'll be devastated because we've prepared ourselves psychologically and we have built hopes for a better future."

Thinking back to the violence and fear that drove her to Jordan, and those dark days last summer when her husband almost took the boat to Europe, she has to steady herself. If Canada doesn't work, the only alternative left may be going home.