Remote Jordan: The forgotten pocket of Syria’s refugee crisis


Fragkiska Megaloudi | 09 Jan 2016 07:51 GMT

Ramtha, Jordan – In the chilly afternoon, children play among a row of makeshift tents, their wooden frames covered with plastic, cardboard and old rugs.

Five-year-old Randa curls up next to an unlit stove near her family’s tent. “I don’t like it,” she cries. “It is too cold.”

Around 125 Syrian refugees live in this informal camp, erected near Ramtha in northwestern Jordan. Most are farming families hailing from the western Syrian regions of Hama and Homs, which have been heavily impacted by the country’s ongoing civil war.

These people are part of a nearly forgotten pocket of Syria’s refugee crisis – the almost 20,000 Syrians who live in squalid conditions in informal tent settlements scattered throughout remote areas of the Jordan valley and beyond.

“I came three years ago because it is easier to find work during the harvest,” Hama native Omar Hameed, 29, told Al Jazeera. The animal trader fled Syria with his four children and his wife, who is now six months’ pregnant with their fifth child. Hameed worries about the conditions they are living in.

“When it rains, water is pouring in,” he said. “The tents are flooded and covered with mud. Rats from the fields enter inside.”

READ MORE: Syrians at Zaatari camp – ‘We can’t live here forever’

Hameed’s family survives on food vouchers distributed monthly by the World Food Programme. The majority of the refugees in this camp are registered with the United Nations and are entitled to monthly vouchers worth 50 Jordanian dinars ($70) per family.

But the vouchers, which can be redeemed for basic food items, are barely enough to feed a family for a month. To supplement the vouchers, many families work for under-the-table wages on the Jordanian farms where they have set up their tents. Some say they earn five Jordanian dinars ($7) for 12 to 14 hours of hard agricultural labour.

Inside these informal tent settlements, there is no heating, running water or toilets. Refugees must pay for the electricity that is strung out to them and the water that is shipped in. Agreements with landlords are informal and unwritten, adding to the families’ vulnerability.

Around 90 percent of the families live below the absolute poverty line and a quarter of children in the [informal settlements] are involved in some form of labour.

Muhammad Rafiq Khan, UNICEF child protection specialist

Since the Syrian war began nearly five years ago, 1.4 million Syrians, about half of whom are registered with the UN refugee agency, have sought refuge in Jordan, a country of seven million people.

Jordan has maintained an open-border policy, but the influx of refugees has overstretched the country’s already limited infrastructure and flooded the labour force, with Syrians undercutting Jordanian workers. Most Syrian refugees live in towns and cities, while around 100,000 live in the two main authorised refugee camps in the country’s north.

Those who cannot afford to pay rent, or who do not want to enter the formal camps due to restrictions, end up living in the informal settlements that have sprawled across Jordan in recent years.

“Some had a nomadic background in Syria, but most live here simply because they cannot afford anything else,” Marcello Rossoni, who leads an aid mission for the Italian NGO Intersos in northwestern Jordan, told Al Jazeera.

In 2014 there were 125 informal settlements in Jordan, hosting more than 10,000 people. The number of settlements has tripled to nearly 400 in the past year, with aid workers estimating that some 20,000 Syrian refugees live in self-made camps.

This number is likely to increase as the refugee population in Jordan grows and the financial situation of Syrians in the country worsens, aid agencies say.

Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan without a permit costing around 700 Jordanian dinars ($985), and although the employer is required to pay those fees, it is typically the refugees who ultimately bear the cost. Consequently, 99 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are either jobless or work illegally. Having exhausted their savings, many struggle to pay rents that are inflated dramatically from pre-crisis levels – up to 300 percent in some cases.

Read more here. (Original posted in Al Jazeera.)