The Bedouin town of Mafraq is only a short drive from the gates of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which British Prime Minister David Cameron visited on Monday to show off the contribution of British aid.
It presents an altogether more troubling image, however. Mafraq hosts about 100 000 refugees, who outnumber the town’s Jordanian citizens and the population of Zaatari.
Living in rented rooms, converted garages, workshops, in structures built on the roofs of local houses, the Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan are among the most vulnerable.
Supported by many of the same international agencies and funded in part, like the camps, by British aid money, Mafraq’s refugees symbolise not the success of the international aid effort but its failure – a failure that is increasingly driving people towards Europe or, in desperation, back into Syria’s war zones.
If, as Cameron said earlier on Monday in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, the United Kingdom’s focus is on helping refugees there and in Jordan “to make sure we discourage people from making this dangerous journey to Europe”, it is in places like Mafraq, not in Zaatari, where many of the most serious problems are visible.
Impoverished and burdened with debt, many in Mafraq saw their food rations reduced in August as the cash-strapped World Food Programme (WFP) reduced the number of Syrian refugees receiving its food vouchers in Middle Eastern host countries by a third, leaving 229 000 in Jordan without food aid as of September.
The reality, as senior aid officials concede, is that, despite the largesse of donor countries, including £1-billion contributed by the UK, the Syrian aid effort faced crises on various fronts, including funding and the exasperation of those affected who see no end in sight to the Syrian conflict.
As Cameron’s helicopter landed in Zaatari, Mahmoud Krouma was planning a Friday departure for Europe from Mafraq. He will leave his family behind for now, including his brother-in-law, Mazin (32), who has Down’s syndrome. Originally from Homs, one of Krouma’s eyes was damaged in an explosion. Most of Mazin’s family were killed in a missile strike.
“We have been here two years this month,” Krouma says. His wife Wafa says their WFP food ration was cut last month. Like many, they do not know whether they will get any assistance next time the vouchers are issued.
“We had a family meeting after the ration was cut,” says Krouma as images of the war and Europe’s refugee crisis play out on the television behind him.
“I have a passport so I can fly to Turkey. We collected the money for the flight to Istanbul and $1?000 for the people smugglers in Izmir.”
He will travel with seven neighbours, all following the same route, first aiming for Greece, and then for Germany or Sweden. “We prayed and prayed together,” says Wafa. “It seemed like the only hope.”
Krouma is not alone in contemplating the journey. In the streets of Mafraq, the Guardian went to visit families, only to find they had already left. Others tell of neighbours who are planning to go.
In Krouma’s apartment block, only two of 12 families remain. Some have gone to Turkey, but others – at their wits’ end – have returned to Syria, preferring to risk the war than continue struggling to survive in Jordan where they cannot work, aid is being slashed and family debt mounts inexorably.
Both Syrians and aid officials say the sense of mounting despair is captured in various indicators in the camps and among Jordan’s urban refugees in places such as Mafraq.
On one day last week, almost 200 refugees took the bus that goes daily from Zaatari back to the Syrian border to return to the conflict zone. Anecdotal evidence suggests a small number will try the perilous overland route across the many fronts to reach Turkey.
Most simply cannot see a future in Jordan, where 86% percent of refugees receive less than 68 dinars (R1?285) a month, set by the Jordanian government as the country’s poverty level.
Child marriages on the rise
According to senior United Nations officials, child marriages are rising as families seek to find somewhere their daughters will be provided for. Those who can sell their assets, including – if possible – property and land in Syria.
The increasingly grim and febrile mood has been made worse by media images of those who have made it to Europe and by a lively rumour mill. In the main UN refugee reception centre in Amman, Fouad Mustafa Tafnagi has his irises scanned as part of the registration process.
It quickly becomes clear that Tafnagi, an engineer married to a Jordanian woman, has come because of a rumour published on a Lebanese website that a shipping firm has been contracted to take refugees to Germany for resettlement. It is a story that, in little more than a day, has drawn 500 people to the reception centre.
Andrew Harper, the UN refugee agency’s head in Jordan, paints a bleak picture of the effort to house refugees in the country, which had seen initial successes. “We have seen the number of Syrians wanting to return rising from 60 a day to 120 a day in August to 190 on one day last week. It is too early to say whether it is a trend, but it is going upwards.
“We should be providing support for people where they are safe, not creating the circumstances that pushes them back into the war zone.”
The agency has also seen a gradual increase in those trying to reach Turkey, Harper says. “These are refugees who lost almost everything in the conflict. Now, after several years for most, they have sold off most of their remaining assets. By increments it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to survive.
“People cannot work legally, and the lack of livelihoods means the situation here is not sustainable. Europe is now confronting the consequences of its policies here.”
Harper’s solution for Jordan is simple – to fund projects that provide work for refugees in Jordan and benefit the development of a host country that has grown increasingly weary of the refugees it has taken in.
Many of the urban refugees the Guardian spoke to in Mafraq echo Harper’s suggestion. If they could work, they say, they would stay.
Ayman Al Awad (37) lives with his family in a ramshackle room built on a roof for which he pays 100 dinars (about R1.17) a month.
A refugee from Deraa, he would migrate if he could, but will only do so if it is legal. Without help to pay his rent, he has been selling his food vouchers at a loss to cover the cost. Since the cut in the WFP’s food vouchers, however, he no longer has enough to cover the payments.
“We steal bread and live on bruised vegetables that we can find,” he says. “We survive on scraps. I used to own a supermarket. I had a small farm and a car. All I need is 100 dinars a month. If I was allowed, I would sell tomatoes in the street to make ends meet, but then I would be arrested.”
Awad says there is nothing left for him in Syria, but believes he may have to return. “I have talked to the family. We will give it five or six more months. If things don’t get better we will have to return. We have no choice. We are being pushed back into the fire.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015