Syrian refugees decamp for tough life in Jordan's cities

Refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in the Za'atari refugee camp at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

By , Correspondent

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    A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, in July.
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Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her chilly, unfurnished home, a Syrian widow explains how she sneaked out of Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp. It cost 50,000 Syrian pounds, about $700, to pay someone from outside to sneak her past the camp's security. She was allowed to pay half up-front, and had a relative in Jordan who could lend her the money.

From there she found an apartment in an urban slum: two dark, bare concrete rooms, crawling with damp. She says she lives mostly off her neighbors, who are also Syrian refugees. One of them found her a television in the garbage, and now it sits in the corner, tuned to a Syrian opposition TV station showing ghastly images of the war against Bashar al-Assad's regime back home. When a sheikh came through the neighborhood giving charitable donations to refugees, she spent hers paying off her debts.

Asked if she is glad she left Za'atari, she gestures at her surroundings.

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"To live this way? It's not worth it," she says. "I will go back to Bashar, and die as a martyr. That would be much better than here, and dying in this situation."

Though much attention has been paid to the camp, refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in Za'atari at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

They have to pay rent, for one thing – often on apartments that are in terrible condition, and freezing in the winter. To stay fed and housed, urban refugees need jobs, and Jordan already has 30 percent unemployment. Without work permits, refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, and many end up working for next to nothing.

Interviewees in Jordan's poor neighborhoods describe scrounging for assistance: traveling around the city and waiting in long lines to register with charities or the UN, or to pick up occasional food packages, or gifts of furniture. For those who sneaked out of the camp, accessing even the most basic services seems impossible, because they lack proper identification.

"I always encourage people in Za'atari not to leave the camp," says Massara Srass, head of the Syrian Women's Organization, which provides assistance to refugees in Amman. "The problems you will face outside of Za'atari are bigger than in Za'atari."

Ways out of camp

There are lots of ways out of Za'atari. Some 6,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria. For some others, the government employs a system of kefala, or sponsorship: Syrians who can find a Jordanian citizen to vouch for their whereabouts and welfare can leave the camp. They call it being "bailed out."

But kefala, government and UN sources say, is reserved for refugees with humanitarian issues like illness, or those with relatives in Jordan. Since the camp opened, roughly 6,000 people have been bailed out, according to the government's spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs, Anmar Hmoud.

But in the camp, stories abound that kefala can be bought, for prices ranging from $70 to $1,400. Officials say that's not so.

"What's happening now: Some Jordanians, and most of them are criminals ... try to convince the Syrians, if they give them 500, 1,000 [Jordanian] dinars, they can bring them out of the camp in a legal way," says police department spokesman Mohammed al-Khatib.

Refugees described different ways of sneaking out of the camp: Some paid visiting workers to help them escape; others simply slipped around the fence at moments when security was lax. Most are fully aware they've gamed the system, but others seem to actually believe they've been let out legally. One woman said she had bought a kefala from a taxi driver at the entrance to one of the transit camps – but the document she produced was a photocopy of a blank kefala form, which did not have the name of a sponsor on it.

In early November, police reported breaking up a smuggling ring that was bringing refugees out of the camp. At the time, Mr. Hmoud told the partially state-owned "Jordan Timesthat 4,000 people had been taken out illegally – but that number might be low. Estimates of the number in the camp are rough at best, but of the 60,000 refugees who have entered, around half remain.

Camp life

Za'atari was opened to take some of the strain off Jordan's cities, which were overflowing with refugees. At the start, it was a bleak place: baking during the day, freezing at night, and ravaged by dust.

Today, conditions have improved. The dust problem has abated. Many of the camp's residents have been moved from tents into trailers. Heating systems, insulation, blankets and clothes are being distributed. Lines at the distributions are long, and refugees still complain bitterly of the cold, but the atmosphere is less dire.

The food, too is a subject of complaint, but the UN provides basic caloric needs, and the main street of the camp is now a thriving avenue of makeshift shops selling clothing, household goods, produce, and homemade food to those with a little cash. There are three hospitals, five clinics, and a 4,000-capacity school.

And there has been a trickle of refugees returning to Za'atari from the cities. Their number is still far fewer than those leaving: a handful a day, Hmoud says. But it may grow, as winter stretches refugees' thin budgets.

"People will always complain about the camp, but ... it provides people with protection that they don't otherwise have," says Andrew Harper, the Jordan head of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. "Winter works both ways: It's going to be tough in the camp, but it's also going to be tough living in an unheated apartment [in a city]. So as we bring in more and more support in the camp, you'll have more and more people coming in."

But at the moment, UN officials say the majority of refugees are still happier to be outside – and there are signs that that outflow is shifting some of the burden of assistance back onto local communities. The number of people outside continues to increase, and the refugees who have been here longer are exhausting the meager resources they came with. The UN and its partners are now distributing regular cash assistance to some 4,600 families, and emergency supplements to about 1,000 more.

But for the refugees who have sneaked out of Za'atari, getting access to that aid can be a major problem. When refugees sneak across Jordan's borders at night, the police confiscate their identification papers. Those who are bailed out are supposed to be able to get their documents back, but those whose kefala is irregular often have nothing.

"If I left my home in flames and escaped to here, how am I supposed to be able to give them my passport?" she asks. "These people that have papers ... get assistance straight away … but those of us who are really in need can’t get anything … because we don’t have the right documents!"

On Tuesday, the Jordanian government announced that it would soon start giving ID cards to Syrian refugees, which they could use to access services. Announcements in local newspapers asked Syrians to come and register at their local police stations. Details of the plan are still sparse, so it is not clear whether another ID will help those most in need, or just be one more hurdle that urban refugees will need to leap.

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