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Why more Syrian refugees are leaving Jordan than arriving

October 12, 2015 at 6:35 PM EST
In Jordan, there's intense sympathy for the thousands of refugees who have landed there. But it's illegal for most Syrians to work in that nation, and limited food aid doesn't go very far. So refugees are increasingly making the dangerous journey to Europe, or even back home, because they are struggling to survive in countries that neighbor their own. Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, we take a closer look at what’s driving many Syrian refugees to risk their lives by attempting the journey to Europe.

Syria’s neighbor, Jordan, has taken in more than 600,000 refugees over the past four years, and has quite literally been buckling under the strain on its scarce resources and a massive drop in international aid. The refugees themselves are the hardest-hit there.

And, tonight, special correspondent Jane Arraf introduces us to a few of them who are willing to risk everything to leave.

JANE ARRAF: Every evening, Ali goes out with his daughters and his son, Hassan. It’s not for the fresh air. It’s illegal for most Syrian refugees to work in Jordan. In the daytime, he tries to find odd jobs without getting arrested. To help put food on the table, at night, he looks for soda cans to sell and broken appliances to repair.

ALI, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter): Sometimes, I take the girls with me and walk for three or four miles. At the end of the month, people get their salaries and throw a lot of things away. But when I walk for longer distances, I just take Hassan, and I carry two or three bags with me.

JANE ARRAF: It’s exhausting, but he says he would rather do honest work than beg for money. Hassan is 13. He was in a car accident in Syria when he was a baby. He and five sisters and a brother came to Jordan with their parents three years ago. Two more children were born here, a blessing, Ali says.

He says when they first came from Aleppo, things were fine. They brought almost $20,000 in savings. And organizations were eager to help. But now the savings are gone. And aid has been cut to almost nothing. With winter coming, it’s become almost impossible here. But Ali has a plan.

ALI (through interpreter): My wife’s family is in Turkey. Her relatives went to Germany. Some of them arrived. Some of them didn’t. We spoke to some people, and, God willing, by the end of the month, we will be there. We will leave from here to Turkey with our passports and then we will leave Turkey for Greece and then Austria and then Germany.

JANE ARRAF: Ali’s nephew drowned this year trying to reach Europe. He says the children are all terrified of dying on the crossing. But he plans to get a backpack and carry the youngest children on his back. His wife will carry Hassan.

Ali’s family is among the 80 percent of Syrian refugees trying to survive outside the camps in Jordan. It’s a small country with high unemployment and few resources sandwiched between Syria, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia.

Politicians like Mustafa Hamarneh say it would make sense to allow Syrians to work legally in Jordan, but that’s unlikely to happen.

MUSTAFA HAMARNEH, Member of Parliament: You have to keep in mind that over 20 percent of the — of Jordan’s population today is — consists of Syrian refugees. On top of that, you have 400,000 Egyptians. On top of that, you have about 300,000 Iraqis, and you have 50,000 Yemenis.

And now Interior tells us that there are about 100,000 Libyans. So, how do you deal with all this and how do you deal with the tremendous unrest around us?

JANE ARRAF: There’s an intense sympathy here for the refugees, but as the war goes on, a growing frustration.

MUSTAFA HAMARNEH: Now, you will not see in Jordan what you see in Europe, massive demonstrations against the refugees. You see some voices here, that these are our skinheads who make noise here and there, but there will not be any mass — negative mass movement opposing either the Syrians or the Iraqis.

Once the dust settles down at the end of the day these are Arabs and people see them as fellow Arabs.

JANE ARRAF: But particularly in the cities, a lot of Jordanian citizens feel they are competing with Syrian refugees for basic resources. This is one of Jordan’s biggest supermarket chains. It’s one of 90 supermarkets where Syrian refugees can access the aid provided by the World Food Program.

With the latest cuts, it’s full of food that refugees now can only dream of being able to afford. Only the poorest of Syrian refugees are still getting help buying food. So, with cards like these from the World Food Program, each of them gets $14 a month. That doesn’t go very far. For instance, this bottle of oil costs $4.

Just a bag of sugar would cost almost half a refugee’s monthly allowance. The cuts in aid have been so deep that, on this day, all of these shoppers are Jordanian. Jordanian businesspeople say rents have risen so much since the Syrians arrived that even Jordanians have less money to spend on food.

The World Food Program cut aid in half to a quarter-million Syrians here. More than 100,000 people, including children, were dropped entirely. Refugees are increasingly making the dangerous journey to Europe because they’re having trouble surviving in neighboring countries.

JONATHAN CAMPBELL, World Food Program: The cuts in assistance is one of the driving factors. I don’t think we are the only organization, but we were described the other day as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I think that’s probably true.

JANE ARRAF: After four years of fighting in Syria, half the country’s population is displaced. And Jordan’s biggest camp, Zaatari, is looking more permanent. The tents are still here, but now they are attached to trailers provided for each family. Some refugees have started growing their old food, like corn and eggplant.

The population at Zaatari camp has been capped at 80,000 people, and the cuts in aid here are far less severe. It’s sweltering in the summer and cold in the winter, but no one is in danger of starving. From this camp, though, more than 100 refugees a day are actually leaving back to Syria. They’re not allowed to return to Jordan.

Relatives load the bus with blankets and clothing they will need to survive in devastated communities. Um Mohammad is trying to take one last photo of her grandson before a policeman stops her. Many of those on the bus don’t want it known they’re going back.

Her son was arrested for working illegally and has already gone back to Syria.

UM MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter): He called his wife and said, we are going to Turkey. Come and join me. In Turkey, life is much better than here. We are allowed to work.

JANE ARRAF: Jordan has essentially closed its border with Syria. There are now more Syrian refugees leaving Jordan than arriving. Most of the refugees going back to Syria won’t talk on camera. Some say they’re being sent back by the Jordanian government after being caught working illegally. Some are going back to fight.

But most of them say, with the cuts in aid, they just can’t survive in Jordan anymore. The Jordanian government says it has in the past deported a small number of refugees back to Syria for serious security violations. But it says all of those going back now are returning voluntarily.

Ali isn’t thinking of going back to Syria. He’s got his sights set on Sweden. He can fix almost anything. Almost everything in their home, including the television, was either thrown away or bought cheaply and repaired. He says he doesn’t want any handouts in Europe. He will clean bathrooms if he has to.

He knows there’s a chance they could die trying to get there. But here, he says, is the certainty of another difficult winter.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Arraf in Amman, Jordan.

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