AZRAQ, Jordan — Twenty-five-year-old Naha al Faouri has food, water, shelter, education for her five children, and, most importantly, peace of mind—all the things she lost in Syria. But these comforts don’t outweigh the misery of living in a refugee camp in the middle of the Jordanian desert. She sits on a flat mattress with her legs tucked under her red dress, black eyeliner traced into a point from the corners of her eyes, and tells me that she and her family probably will return to Syria before the heat of summer hits.
“We’ll try to hold on until the last breath,” she says from the one-room container provided as housing by the United Nations here in Azraq Refugee Camp. The life she’d return to in Syria would be much different than it was before the war, when she and her husband owned a collection of farms and factories and built a comfortable existence. “We’re aware there won’t be schools, we’re aware we may not survive, that we might get killed,” she says. “That’s why we’re reluctant, but it would be our last solution.”
Al Faouri is one of thousands of refugees who returned to the refugee camps after the Jordanian government and international organizations started whittling away at the aid they received while living in Jordan’s cities. After four years of war, donor interest has waned, and budgets for the humanitarian crisis have taken a slashing. So, al Faouri and many other are on a circuitous trip back to Syria, disenfranchised by the impossibility of surviving so far from home.
Life has become increasingly perilous for the more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan who do not actually live in Jordan’s refugee camps. As this tiny country and an overstretched humanitarian response try to accommodate a massive migration, services are being pulled from under the refugees. In the past few months, their food assistance vouchers have been either eliminated or dramatically reduced, and they’ve been asked to pay for health care that was previously free. Many have moved back into the camps. And many have returned to Syria.
Al Faouri married young and had many children, but she and her husband had a good life in Daraa, Syria, not far from the Jordanian border. That is, until 2013, when a bomb flattened their house. They fled to Jordan and lived for more than a year in Amman, the capital, where her husband worked odd jobs: packaging cleaning supplies in a factory, lifting bricks in a concrete shop, pumping gas. It’s illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Jordan, so many take under-the-table jobs. Al Faouri says sometimes employers wouldn’t pay her husband because they knew he had no legal recourse.
In December, the World Food Program announced that it was cutting food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees living in the region due to lack of funds. Al Faouri’s food vouchers were reduced by half, to the equivalent of $18 per person per month. “There was no use staying there and paying rent when you don’t have any source of income,” she says. They moved to Azraq in February.
When asked about life in the camp, she laughs wryly. Al Faouri and her husband are desperate to find something to occupy their time. Food vouchers aren’t enough, she says, services are far away, and the summer heat is bound to be unbearable without electricity, which won’t be installed until later this year or next.
“I don’t regret [moving to the camp] because we came here with the intention of returning to Syria if we don’t find another solution,” she says. “We would probably go back under bombing, but we’ll look for a safer area to travel through. Nothing is guaranteed, but at least we’ll try. Here life is miserable.”
Azraq Refugee Camp is a dusty 30-minute drive from the nearest town. Fifty miles from the Syrian border, a turn off the long, speedy highway leads into a bleak expanse of boxy white shelters arranged into “towns” by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
It’s the country’s newest and best organized camp, but it’s been slow to fill up since opening one year ago. Even though Azraq is the only reception facility for incoming refugees, the numbers had been decreasing until January, when cuts in assistance sent refugees from nearby cities streaming in. It has since jumped from 11,000 to more than 17,000. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) expects the population could reach over 40,000 by the year’s end.
But five years into a war that has no end in sight, filling a refugee camp is just a temporary solution. Andrew Harper, the top representative for UNHCR in Jordan, considers the current increase in numbers to be a regression. “We can expand Azraq, but it's not much of a success when you're looking at expanding a refugee camp,” he says.
UNHCR now counts between 300 to 350 new arrivals to Azraq every day—about half of whom are coming from Jordan’s main cities, where they’ve tried and failed to establish a life for themselves. Once they return to the camp, they won’t be allowed to leave again. Previously, refugees could apply to be “bailed out” by outside sponsors, but the program was suspended indefinitely, according to a UNHCR representatives at the camp.
One of those returning is Abdul Qader Affan, who arrived in Jordan after traveling for nine months from his home in Idlib, Syria, far to the north near the Turkish border. He was seeking medical treatment for his young son, who had shrapnel in his eye. Outside the camp they faced a harsh reality: A hospital did the procedure for free, but buying medicine was impossible.
Affan seems to pride himself in being a law-abiding citizen, and working illegally made him sick with worry and guilt. With just $33 in food vouchers per person each month, they could barely afford rent for the basement where they slept. After a year and a half of trying to get by, he returned to Azraq camp in February, petrified by stories of refugees caught working and deported back to Syria.
His wife, Huda al Shawi, hasn’t adjusted to life in a refugee camp and longs to return to a Jordanian city, at least. “Our lives were different, even education was different there, children were happier and stable. You can take control of your chances there,” she says. “The only reason he convinced me to come to the camp was to prevent any chance of being forced back to Syria.”
But al Shawi actually wishes she could return to her war-torn home. “Sometimes I think about just going back, but I know it would be impossible to return and my husband is not considering going back. Maybe one day our children will return, but for us, as their parents, we do not see returning in this lifetime.”
For others struggling to survive, returning to Syria offers at least a familiar setting.
In early April, on the outskirts of Azraq, dozens gathered under an open-sided shelter with their belongings. They were choosing bombs over security, food, and housing, and awaited the weekly transport back to Syria. A few hours later, the bus stop was clear but for a couple of stragglers, and Jordan was lighter a few refugees. Buses also leave from the enormous Zaatari camp almost daily, and the numbers of returnees there fluctuates from 50 to 100 per day.
“It’s not a difficult analysis to do,” UNHCR’s Andrew Harper says of the effect of assistance cuts. “This forces people into extremely vulnerable situations. Basically, children no longer go to school, women may be forced into survival sex. People may be forced to go back to Syria, or they go to the camps.”
The numbers have been hard to tally, but Harper is certain that a reflux back into Syria will be noticed when the border activity slows down. “If fighting subsides there would be an increase of people to return [to Syria], which is not a great indicator of our success in providing security,” Harper says.
An estimated third of refugee households are headed by single moms, and children have been transformed into breadwinners to keep their families afloat. They sweep up at hair salons, deliver tea on the busy streets of Amman, and carry bags in hotels. A group of child laborers interviewed by The Daily Beast spoke of working long days for between $50 to $100 a month to support their families.
Asma, an 11-year-old girl who came to Jordan from Aleppo, was assisting at a tailor shop because her mother, Fayza, could no longer pay the hospital bills to treat both breast cancer and a brain tumor. Fayza completed nine sessions of chemotherapy when her medical coverage was cut off in November. She couldn’t afford to finish the last three, and also couldn’t pay for the test to see if the first treatments worked. But even with no recourse, she won’t move to Azraq. “I wouldn’t consider going to the camp, but I’ve thought about going back to Syria—because if I need chemotherapy they’ll throw radiation at us for free,” she says darkly, referring to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
In conversations with Syrian refugee families living in Amman, almost all stressed that they would willingly return to Syria before entering the camp again. One young mother with an autistic son cried while describing how she ties his legs together when she leaves the house so he won’t hurt himself. But she would never willingly move back to Azraq, where she stayed briefly. “I can’t imagine going back. If I was forced to go back I’d return to Syria.” Another mother, seeking education for her children and medication for her husband with hepatitis, said she also would refuse to go, as “life there is unbearable.”
In a pre-furnished apartment filled with green couches in Amman, Abeer Balcheh sits with her 16-year-old daughter and newborn granddaughter. Their food rations were cut by more than half and now they live off $14 per person each month. In Syria, the family had 15 employees in their appliance shop and owned five houses—one waiting for each child when they were old enough to move in. Now her husband works illegally in manufacturing and they fit seven people in two bedrooms. She says her husband wants to go back to Syria, but she wants to stay for her four kids. “He says, ‘I can’t take it anymore, I want to go back because it’s the only solution,’” Balcheh says. “I ran out of rationalizations to convince him to stay.”
The cuts mean refugees are leaning more on small amounts they can get from international aid groups, which are already stretched thin. The day after the new health-care regulations took hold, panicked refugees were flooding to CARE’s urban center, which provides refugees living in the cities with emergency cash and protection assistance.
“People woke up, went to their appointments and were told, ‘You have to pay,’” says Sawsam Moh’d Sa’ada, the project’s manager. By April, CARE had counted a 30 percent growth in the number of refugees it helps daily. Now, Sa’ada says, the families she’s been working with are returning to Syria at the same rate they’re going back to the camps. “It’s common now to hear people say, ‘My brother and family went back, and if they continue this way the only thing we can do is return to Syria.’”
To add to the impetus for those packing up, the Jordanian government recently announced that all refugees living in urban areas would need to go through a re-verification process, which includes a medical assessment that costs around $70 and the proffering of a legal lease agreement. Harper says many will be forced into hiding, back to the camps, or home to Syria with these restrictions.
“No government wants refugees to stay a day longer than is absolutely necessary and the Jordanians are no exception to that. There’s increasing anxiety as to how long the refugees are here for,” Harper says. “The Jordanian government believes they’re being unfairly burdened with the bulk of the refugee costs.”
The weight on Jordan is eased when the Syrians are contained within a camp, but it’s hardly a long-term solution. And it’s uncertain how far Jordanian hospitality can be pushed. The government of Jordan estimates there are 1.4 million Syrians living in Jordan, and less than half of them are registered as refugees by UNHCR. Syrian refugees now make up 20 percent of Jordan’s population and are a massive burden on its economy.
Turkey is considering allowing refugees into its workforce, but the Jordanian government seems unlikely to follow suit unless it can be convinced to build a more sustainable system to allow refugees to contribute to the economy. But with the rise of ISIS, neither Jordan nor the international community are as invested in the humanitarian crisis, Harper says, so he doesn’t expect any favors. “It’s so difficult to push for concessions when Jordan is looking at the mess that is the Middle East,” Harper says of the government. “Their number one-through-four concerns are security and stability.”
This lack of interest is being felt acutely by the Syrians, who watch as it becomes harder to eek out an independent living. “It’s a signal being sent to refugees, that the international community is not up to the mark,” Harper says. “They ask, ‘It’s not going to improve, is it?’ People have been here two, three years and they’ve sold everything.”
In the coming year, as work opportunities, health coverage, and food become more elusive, he believes that “people will fall back on the only solid safety net and that is the camps.” If that proves unthinkable or unlivable, the next stop on the Syrian refugee railroad could be home, if there’s anything left of it.
This reporting was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and made possible by CARE.