Scarce aid compounds Syria refugee crisis

More than 40,000 refugees have poured from Syria into Jordan in the last month, and aid agencies say they can’t cope.

Amman, Jordan – Living in a makeshift tent beside a farmer’s field, Abdul Aziz and his family are among the thousands of Syrian refugees who have poured into neighbouring Jordan in recent days.

Hailing from a farm near the city of Hama, an area particularly hard-hit by violence, Aziz said the shabiha, a gang supporting President Bashar al-Assad, killed his brother’s three children.

“Assad brought a bulldozer to our house,” Aziz told Al Jazeera, standing beside his makeshift tent south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. “We had to flee in the night.”

Since January 1, between 40,000 and 50,000 Syrians have fled into Jordan, said Andrew Harper, head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. It’s the fastest influx since the uprising against Assad began almost two years ago.

Representatives from more than 60 countries are meeting in Kuwait on Wednesday for a donor conference where the UN is aiming to raise $1.5bn to address the needs of refugees. 

“We are seeing between 2,000 and 4,000 people coming into Jordan every night… sixty percent are children,” Harper told Al Jazeera. “Unless something significantly changes, we will be looking at having one million Syrians in the country by the end of the year. We are dealing with a desperately vulnerable population that has been traumitised and suffered so much.”

‘Damp and cold’

Initially, Aziz and his family set up camp in the north of Jordan, but he said frigid winter weather made survival difficult, especially for their infant children. “No-one has helped us,” Aziz told Al Jazeera, speaking of international agencies. “We just put our tents down here,” he explained, pointing to fields of crops.

The Jordanian land owner allowed Aziz’s family to stay there, he said, but without even the meagre facilities of a refugee camp, life remains hard.

His wife cooks food on an open fire; he says they are sometimes only eating one meal a day. Children attempt to swat the flies that buzz constantly overhead and gusts of wind blow sand into the badly constructed plastic tents. The nights are often freezing cold and the children do not have proper clothes.

Caroline Gluck, an aid worker with the charity Oxfam, said refugees such as Aziz are “depending on the generosity of their hosts, as they don’t have access to food rations, blankets and other aid provided in formal refugee camps”.

“At the moment there is almost a flood of refugees and agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“People are damp and cold with very little protection from the elements,” Gluck told Al Jazeera, speaking by phone from the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Many refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are living in informal circumstances similar to Aziz’s family, she said.

More than 300,000 Syrians have fled into Jordan since March 2011, Jordanian officials said recently; more than 700,000 people are thought to have fled Syria in the past two years.

Agencies say they are trying to respond to their needs, but resources are the problem, Gluck and Harper contend. 

“Everyone wants to do more, but they just don’t have the money to do it,” said Gluck. “Many countries are suffering from the economic crisis, but here it is almost a matter of life and death.”

The UN said it only has three percent of the $1bn it needs to fund services for refugees, and the disparity is growing rapidly as the number of people fleeing rises.

Jordan is a middle income state; Aziz and aid workers have nothing but praise for the country which has kept its borders open and allowed hundreds of thousands to stay.

Syrian refugees in Jordan have been living in rough conditions [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera] 

In Lebanon, which has also kept its borders open, refugees now constitute about 4 percent of the country’s population, Gluck said, putting “an enormous strain on the local population”.

‘I want to go home’

When he escaped Syria, Aziz first fled to Iraq, “but they didn’t let us in,” he said, angrily.

“When the Iraq war happened, we made our house their house. But they closed the border to us.” He blames Iraq’s Shia-led government for barring predominately Sunni refugees from entering the country.

Hama, the city Aziz fled, was the site of a massacre in 1982, when troops under the authority of Assad’s father killed some 20,000 people during a crackdown on demonstrators linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The city is still known as bastion of support for groups affiliated to the Brotherhood.

But those political and religious problems aren’t front and centre for Aziz as he remembers his time before the recent uprising. “I raised animals and had a car,” he said. “It was a good life.”

“I want to go back home,” he said, swatting a fly from his face. “But my city is like a ghost town now.”

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera