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Refugees Pour Out of Syria, but Number Entering Jordan Slows to Trickle

September 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The UN says more than 2 million refugees have left Syria. But while up to 70,000 refugees fled to Jordan in early 2013, the stream has dwindled to a trickle. Aid workers believe the Jordanian government has closed the border, but Jordan says it's due to Syrian fighting. Foreign affairs producer Dan Sagalyn reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to Syria with two takes on reaction to the conflict in the Arab world.

We begin with a look at how the crisis has spilled beyond Syria’s borders. Earlier this week, the United Nations Refugee Agency announced that more than two million people have fled the fighting.

NewsHour foreign affairs producer Dan Sagalyn was in neighboring Jordan recently on a trip sponsored by CARE, the development and humanitarian organization. His story begins in the remote far eastern corner of the country.

Ray Suarez narrates our report.

RAY SUAREZ: These Syrian men, women and children are stepping into safe territory in Jordan. Some are carrying all their possessions in one suitcase.

These refugees are just a few of the now more than two million who have poured out of their homeland since fighting began in Syria more than two years ago. Jordanian soldiers provided them with food and water, and also stood guard, ready to protect them if Syrian forces opened fire. Their journey out of war was dangerous and often deadly.

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This group drove for two days to southeastern Syria to find a safe crossing point. Then, they walked more than four miles through a buffer zone before reaching Jordanian soldiers.

MAN (through interpreter): The armed forces will take us from here. On the other side is more danger. This is better. The armed forces will come this way. They will give us good services. We thank them so much. We are very grateful for them.

RAY SUAREZ: These refugees were helped onto a truck and taken for medical treatment. They will be handed over to the United Nations and taken to a refugee camp, where they will be registered. All the countries surrounding Jordan have taken in significant numbers of refugees.

Jordan has sheltered an estimated 515,000. Lebanon is now home to over 700,000 Syrians. Turkey has 460,000 refugees, and Egypt 110,000. Iraq, which has had a surge in recent weeks of incoming Syrian refugees, now has more than 168,000.

The civil war has also displaced another 4,250,000 inside Syria’s borders.

ANDREW HARPER, U.N. Refugee Agency representative in Jordan: It is a devastation with no end in sight. I don’t think anyone in the region has seen the scale of conflict for decades, probably not for over the last century.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Harper is the U.N. Refugee Agency’s representative in Jordan. We spoke with him after he met with a delegation of Americans, including a member of Congress and foreign assistance experts.

Despite a high number of refugees flooding into Jordan earlier this year, 50,000 to 70,000 per month between January and April, the flow into the Hashemite kingdom has slowed to a trickle recently.

ANDREW HARPER: So we went from about 2,500 to 3,000 per night to about 1,500 to 500 to 100 to basically no one coming across the western border at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the summer, there were media reports the Jordanian government wasn’t allowing new refugees in. A number of the humanitarian workers told us the military has closed the border in the western part of the country and has turned refugees back because the country can’t handle the vast number it already has.

They didn’t want to say this on camera because they feared that it would compromise their ability to help refugees already in Jordan.

JULIEN SCHOPP, InterAction: From the geography of Syria, the main roads are toward the west. The main cities are toward the west. The main trade routes are towards the west. So, if you go east, you have to go through desert. It’s a real, real struggle to actually make it across the border.

RAY SUAREZ: Julien Schopp is the director of humanitarian practice at InterAction, the umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations performing relief and development work throughout the world.

JULIEN SCHOPP: So one can assume that all the refugees that are actually walking through the desert are doing so because they cannot find refuge or asylum in any other routes or roads that are most traveled.

RAY SUAREZ: Jordanian officials, however, deny the military is turning refugees away. Mohammad Al Momani is the government’s spokesman. He too met with the delegation of visiting Americans in Amman.

MOHAMMAD AL MOMANI, Jordanian government: Our policy when it comes to refugees remains the same. Those who reach our borders are actually allowed in, in accordance to international law, international humanitarian law. Any fluctuation with the numbers has to do with the situation inside Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: Al Momani said the large number of Syrian refugees, in addition to Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who came in earlier waves, is straining his country.

MOHAMMAD AL MOMANI: This country is a country with limited resources, actually, and with this large number of refugees, it’s really putting tremendous, tremendous amount of pressure on our infrastructure, on our economic situation, security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, the world’s second largest with more than 120,000 Syrians packed into a few square miles of desert, has become a poster child of sorts for the harsh conditions facing refugees who have fled Syria.

Less known to the world, however, are the struggles facing Syrians who live outside the camps in Jordan. They make up 70 percent of Syrian refugee population in the country. As in the camps, children are in many ways being hit the hardest.

Fatima Hamdi is the mother of a family of nine living in a tent next to an orchard. She’s barely hanging on. Hamdi and her 21-year-old son, Ahmad, said they can’t afford the basics, including schooling for the younger children in the family.

WOMAN (through interpreter): They used to be in school in Syria, but in the past two years, they stopped going to school.

MAN (through translator): Even if they wanted to go to the school, given the situation, it difficult.

WOMAN (through translator): We don’t have the means.

RAY SUAREZ: Khaldwoon Khadh, who escaped from Syria this past April, lives in an apartment building. His children spend their days at home, instead of getting an education.

KHALDWOON KHADH, refugee (through interpreter): We visited so many schools , and some of them are so far away, and some said there is no place for our kids. But if the schools will be so far away from my house, we will not register them because I have no money.

RAY SUAREZ: There are 250,000 Syrian children now living in Jordan. Only 30,000 to 40,000 of them are in school. Since it’s illegal for Syrian refugees in Jordan to work, there’s often no money for education and other basics.

KHALDWOON KHADH (through interpreter): For the past two months, I had not work. I worked in piping and electricity in Jordan. But for the past two months, I have no work. I’m not allowed to work. They will take me to jail.

RAY SUAREZ: Khadh was asked how he pays for food and rent.

KHALDWOON KHADH (through interpreter): I leave it to God. Whoever has will help the person who doesn’t have.

RAY SUAREZ: This family of 12 can only afford to rent one room and a kitchen. They are supported by their 17-year-old son, who works at farm.

WOMAN (through interpreter): He gets five or six Jordanian dinars per day.

MAN (through interpreter): But it depends on the day. And it’s not enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Five or six Jordanian dinars, that’s $7 or $8 a day.

The international community has tried to ease the burden of refugees and their host countries; $500 million has been given to Jordan alone. The United States has provided $100 million and committed another $200 million to help with such things as coping with water shortages and building schools. In addition, the U.S. has committed over a billion dollars to help with the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis throughout the region.

As the conflict in Syria continues, the U.N.’s Andrew Harper stresses the need help Jordan withstand the onslaught of refugees.

ANDREW HARPER: Syria is being destroyed. Egypt is probably going similar. Iraq is going down the drain. So what we need to do is to look at sustainable programs which will ensure that those people fleeing conflict can be protected and assisted for as long as possible.

And we need to make sure that Jordan is maintained as that hub of stability within the region as long as possible.