Facing impossible choices, refugees return to Syria

The United Nations has received only one third of the funds needed to feed Syrians in refugee camps, forcing thousands to return to the chaos of the Syrian Civil War.

Khalil Ashawi/ Reuters
Syrian refugees in Turkey cross the border back into Syria during a temporary border opening to let them celebrate Eid al-Adha with family. In the past two months, more Syrian refugees are returning home for good, exhausted by reduced aid in neighboring countries.

Since the first shots of the Syrian Civil War were fired four years ago, more than four million have taken a one-way trip out of the country, risking grim conditions in refugee camps and treacherous ocean journeys to Europe to escape the increasingly complex fight that has killed over 250,000 and displaced half the country

But now, thousands of them are buying another one-way ticket: back to Syria. 

Although thousands of refugees continue to stream in from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon toward Europe, taking their lives into their hands on treacherous sea voyages or on land routes through the Balkans, staff at refugee camps in Jordan report an uptick in returnees: nearly 4,000 in August alone, signaling a “failure of the international protection regime,” UN representative Andrew Harper told the Associated Press.

Some tell camp staff they’ll return; they need to raise money for the trip to Europe, they say. But for many, it may be wishful thinking, or even denial. Multiple border crossings are not permitted by Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, the “countries of first asylum” for most Syrian refugees, regardless of their long-term destination.

Refugees on the move again say they don’t have a choice – or are being forced to choose between two dreadful fates. "[The UN bears] 75% of the responsibility," refugee Mounib Zakiya, determined to try for Europe, told the BBC in Jordan. "They have opened a gate to death, and are making us walk through it."

Although life as a refugee has always been difficult, whether in cities or camps, drastic reductions in food aid are the latest impetus for the exodus of many families.

Without the legal right to work in their host countries, Syrians are left entirely dependent on organizations like the UN, which has pleaded for increased funding for them. Limited aid forced the UN World Food Programme to halve stipends for 211,000 refugees and eliminate them entirely for another 230,000. Soon, it may run out of money to support the 100,000 still receiving help. 

Even before cuts, most refugees’ means of supporting themselves had disappeared: the vast majority living in Jordan and Lebanon are living beneath those countries’ poverty lines, both of which are less than $4 per day

But things hardly look better in Syria, where a UN-sponsored report found over 80 percent of the population living in poverty, including 30 percent in abject poverty, unable to meet basic food needs. 

Syria’s seemingly unending violence makes it dangerous for reporters, but an Al Jazeera report on Syrians’ Google searches gives glimpses of the life returnees will find back at home: top searches in September included mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, migration routes, and the Red Crescent.

“In the end,” Mr. Harper told Time from Jordan, “we can keep people alive but it has to be much more than that. They need dignity, and that’s something more refugees are finding increasingly difficult to have here.”

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