Over the past five years, the crisis in Syria has seen more than 250,000 people killed, tens of thousands forcibly disappeared, and millions displaced inside of Syria. It has also forced five million people to flee the country as refugees.
Despite the staggering scale of this crisis, international support for the refugees, and for the handful of countries closest to Syria who are hosting the vast majority of them, has been woefully inadequate.
Jordan, which hosts 639,704 Syrian refugees registered by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – the equivalent of 10% of its population – is overwhelmed. Limited humanitarian assistance, depleted savings and lack of livelihood opportunities are compounding the situation for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The vast majority live in urban areas outside of refugee camps, where they struggle to access vital services, including healthcare.
Last November, I met Awad and his family in Sahab, a city on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital Amman. A cramped two-room apartment is now his home, which he shares with his wife Fairuz, their eight young children and his mother Warde.
The first three months after we left the camp were really hard. We felt like we were literally dying.
The family is originally from Aleppo. They first left their home in 2012 to escape intense bombing by the Syrian government forces. Awad described how they moved from one village to another, living in abandoned farmhouses and schools. But the rockets and bombs always followed them, so they had to keep moving. One day early in the summer of 2013, his eight-year-old daughter Sarah was playing outside when a rocket landed close to her, badly injuring her leg.
Awad rushed Sarah to the nearest field hospital but it too had been bombed. Luckily, he found another field hospital operating in a basement nearby. The doctor told him that the only solution was to amputate her leg. “They gave me the leg; they put it in a bag so I could bury it. I was crying, I couldn’t bury it, so the doctor did,” he said.
The family waited for her amputation injuries to heal before leaving for Jordan, where they hoped Sarah would be able to get further treatment.
When the family arrived in Jordan, they initially lived in Zaatari – the second largest refugee camp in the world, which hosts nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees. However they were threatened by what Awad described as “mafia” members living in the camp. They took a dislike to the family because they came from a different part of Syria to the majority of the camp’s population. The men beat Awad and threatened to burn down the family’s caravan if they didn’t leave.
In the end, he had to pay a smuggler to take him and his family out of the camp. They couldn’t leave the camp officially because of strict Jordanian regulations requiring them to meet specific “bailout” terms in order to so.
Because they did not go through the official process to leave Zaatari, Awad and his family are not able to obtain a Ministry of Interior service card, which is crucial for those living outside refugee camps to access public services.
“The first three months after we left the camp were really hard,” said Awad. We felt like we were literally dying.”
They had to survive on private donations for several months before they were able to get food vouchers from the UNHCR. However none of the children are able to go to school because they lack the necessary documents.
Unfortunately, this family’s story of hardship and loss is not unique. During visits to Lebanon and Iraq, I have heard similar stories from Syrian refugees about difficulties in accessing healthcare and other basic services. I have also been struck by their resilience and their determination to never give up hope for a better future for themselves and their families.
Without adequate international support, host countries in the region, which at first generously welcomed refugees from Syria, have now reached breaking point. They are increasingly pushing back by tightening border controls, limiting registration of refugees and cutting off their access to public services. More than 35,000 Syrians who have been denied entry to Jordan have been stranded in dire humanitarian conditions for months on the Jordanian side of the Syria-Jordan border, known as “the berm”.
Things have become so unbearable that many Syrians are choosing to risk their lives and go back to Syria, even returning to areas where there is ongoing fighting.
Between May and September last year, the number of Syrians opting to go back to Syria from Jordan outnumbered arrivals, according to UNHCR. Those who do return know that it’s a one-way trip: Jordan will not let them back into the country once they’ve crossed back into Syria.
Others risk their lives through treacherous sea crossings to Europe and elsewhere.
The fact that Syrian refugees are prepared to risk everything highlights the increasingly unviable situation they face in Jordan and other host countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
Much more needs to be done to relieve the pressure on these countries, where 95% of Syria’s refugees are currently hosted.
On 30 March, a high-level meeting in Geneva about sharing responsibility for this unprecedented refugee crisis will invite governments to pledge to do more. The hope is they will take more of Syria’s refugees through resettlement and other pathways such as family reunification programmes, student visas and medical evacuation.
To date, the world’s states have pledged to resettle only around 170,000 refugees from Syria. This figure is pitifully low. To avert a growing crisis, Amnesty International is calling for 10%, or 480,000, of Syria’s refugees who are considered the most vulnerable – people with serious medical problems, unaccompanied children and torture survivors, among others – to be resettled by the end of 2016.
I have spoken to refugees who were resettled to Germany and the UK that tell me what a life-changing difference it has made. Children are now going to school, their families no longer struggle to access healthcare and other services, and they no longer fear being arrested or sent back to Syria merely for choosing to leave a refugee camp or to live outside of camps.
This stands in stark contrast to the reality for families like Awad’s in Jordan, who face a daily battle to survive. Imagine how different their lives could be if the world would only extend a helping hand.