The Plight of Syria’s Refugees


There has recently been some furore here in the UK over the current coalition government’s refusal to take any of the over 2.3 million Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. Nigel Farage, the leader of a small but growing political party, The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), helped fuel the flames by surprisingly (UKIP stands on a broadly anti-immigration platform) calling for Syrian refugees to be given asylum in the UK.  It turned out he only meant a certain type of Syrian, Christians.  Nice.

This tale has been disproved this week by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who has confirmed that the UK has in fact taken 1,500 Syrian refugees in the past year, compared to Germany which has taken 20,000 refugees . The coalition claimed before this revelation that its “generous” giving of over £500 million pounds worth of aid to the refugee program is a better way to help these people.  This lack of real provision for re-settlement by European countries, including the UK, has contributed to the continual huge rise in Syrians fleeing to neighbouring states in the region and staying there.

Over half of this aid given by the UK goes to the regions governments to help them support the refugees.  There is a troubling situation facing many thousands of the refugees based in these countries surrounding Syria and in particular, Jordan.  Jordan holds the second highest population of Syrian refugees at over 570,000 and rising daily. I have read over a report, commissioned by REACH in co-operation with UNICEF, which raises concerns over the forced eviction of Syrian refugees from their Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) by Jordanian security forces.  These tented settlements are defined as a collection of 10 tents or more with no permission given by the Jordanian authorities for their erection.  The report (focused on northern Jordan) explains that many of the inhabitants from these settlements are from specific communities in Syria who are looking to avoid the intra-community problems that have surfaced in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)-run refugee camp, Zaatari.  The report concludes that;

Long term asset depletion, compounded by high degrees of risk and minimal protection mean that the people living in ITS are unable to afford or access basic services that might otherwise be available to them.

Similarly, although sanitation and other WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) needs are highly context-specific, infrastructure rehabilitation, hygiene promotion and facilitation of access to latrines could effectively address many of the entrenched health and hygiene issues that refugees in ITS deal with. Unfortunately, this is often limited by the land rights of the ITS tenants which is non-existent, constantly under the threat of eviction, thus requiring mobile or temporary solutions.

The clear conclusion is that these tents do not provide for the long-term needs of the refugees.  The Jordanian argument is that these settlements are illegal by Jordanian law and there are already huge official refugee camps set up to house and care for the fleeing refugees. As highlighted above, the REACH report attests to the extreme vulnerability of the settlements in comparison to Zaatari refugee camp. In its conclusion however, the suggestion that land-rights could improve the situation for the inhabitants indicates that there is another option open to Jordanian authorities other than the threat of eviction and eviction itself. Can the Jordanian authorities be entirely blamed for this violent move against the residents of these settlements?  The human rights of the refugees must remain paramount but Jordan has continually opened its doors to Syrians (and Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria) and many others fleeing civil war and ethnic cleansing in the past, including Lebanese and Palestinians.  Despite this generosity many of these same refugees do not have full access to the same services/opportunities, even after many years in Jordan, which are available to Jordanians.  Will this be the long-term fate for the Syrians?

The fact that the tensions that existed within Syria have transposed themselves to the refugee camps should not be a surprise for the UN or Jordanians, due to the documentation of this in previous refugee crises and camps.  Accusations of mistreatment of the refugees within Zaatari have also been made.  This is one of the main problems when you are a refugee, even when based in a fairly well-established and funded camp.  You are almost completely reliant on the camps administration to feed, water, clean and protect you, this for a people who prior to March 2011 were civilians in jobs with families and friends, living a normal civilian life.  In comparison the report on the ITS indicates that a substantial percentage (32.5%) of those refugees surveyed living in the ITS in areas of northern Jordan such as Mafraq and, are able to rely not just on financial assistance from NGOs, friends and families but also on agricultural waged labour in the region.  Despite the precariousness of the settlements this pull of work and subsequent self-worth is a significant factor in their creation.

The evictions which are currently restricted to the northern areas of Jordan look set to widen. An Aid worker who is currently in Jordan informed me that;

At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be coordination between different governors and informal settlement residents in Al Mafraq Governorate are bearing the brunt of the evictions, but there are strong indications from UNHCR that this will soon become nation-wide.

The optimistic long-term solution to the refugee problem is an end to the conflict with political and community reconciliation.  However this does not seem to be on the horizon and could in fact be decades away.  In the meantime the ever-growing number of Syrian refugees must be provided with a long-term solution for their own lives.  They are living in a political and everyday limbo at meaning they cannot live a normal civilian life.  The UN must do more to pressure the Jordanian government to halt evictions from the ITS and provide a peaceful pathway back to a refugee camp or the establishment of more camps to fit the conflicting demographics of the Syrian refugees whilst encouraging reconciliation.  Alongside this European countries must do more to provide asylum/resettlement for many thousands more refugees and allow them to continue their lives, with the option to return to Syria when peace regains a foothold if they so wish to.

Jonathan Woodrow Martin, MA graduate from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester, UK.  You can find his blog on British foreign policy and general foreign affairs/humanitarian issues here, The View From The Little Man. He can be contacted at jonathan4.martin@live.uwe.ac.uk 



Jonathan Woodrow Martin, sometimes blogger who can be reached at, jwoodrowm@gmail.com

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