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Middle East

Flood of refugees overwhelms Jordan

Jordan is considered a safe place for refugees. Many Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis have sought refuge in the small country, but the influx is increasingly creating problems. Tania Krämer reports from Jordan.

Lines of shipping containers stretch out into the distance, huddled together in the middle of the Jordanian desert. The early morning sun reflects off the white roofs of the Azraq refugee camp, currently home to more than 13,000 Syrians who have fled from the war in their homeland.

The camp is also the new home for Suria and her five children. She fled to Jordan six weeks ago from the city of Deir Az Zor in eastern Syria, after living with the fighting in her homeland for more than three years. But the threat to their lives had become too great and they were forced to leave.

"We fled because of the 'Islamic State'; the Assad regime had so far spared us," says Suria. "They sowed fear in the hearts of our children. If it hadn't been for the children, we would have barricaded ourselves in our house and locked the door. But we were forced to flee from the 'IS' militias."

The family is now safe in Azraq, but they are still waiting for news of relatives stuck in the border area, unable to continue their journey into Jordan. Officially the border remains open, but for many weeks no one has been able to cross into Jordan, said Suria. Despite the fighting in her homeland, she hopes to return some day. "In Syria, everything is better. The land is so precious to me," she says, crying as she thinks of home.

Jordanien Flüchtlingslager Azraq

The Azraq refugee camp was set up as a semi-permanent site

Daily life

After three years of war and a harrowing escape, the family has witnessed many terrible things. And now they must get used to life in the desert. Their container home is sparsely furnished, with a couple of blankets and a small gas stove. Today, Suria is using it to cook potatoes and onions, as the children drink tea and eat flatbread.

The Azraq refugee camp was set up in April to take in any new refugees arriving in Jordan. Instead of provisional tents, authorities decided to set up shipping container straight away on the rocky desert floor. Unlike the overcrowded Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, Azraq was built to be spacious, but due to its location in the middle of the desert it's also completely isolated from any other nearby cities.

International aid workers now have a tight deadline to winterize the camp. Germany's Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) helped build the camp at the outset, and is now working to improve the simple toilet facilities. The camp does not yet have electricity; in the evenings, light is provided by donated rechargeable solar lamps.

Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, head of Azraq field office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is especially worried about the upcoming winter months. "With the many refugee and humanitarian crises in the region, the world's attention has moved on to other crises," she says, urging the international community to continue supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan and in the wider region.

The UNHCR has so far registered 613,000 Syrians living in Jordan, though the real figure could be higher, according to the estimates of observers. More than 100,000 Syrians live in refugee camps like Zaatari or Azraq, but most have found shelter in border towns or in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Prices increase as incomes stagnate

Jordan is known for its hospitality, but the small country has begun to feel the strain of the refugee influx. In the town of Ramtha on the border with Syria, locals complain that resources, such as water, are becoming scarce, while prices and rents have increased. At the market, Jordanians talk of the higher prices and ask how the county will be able to provide for so many refugees.

Eman Adawe knows the situation all too well. The Jordanian teacher is on her way to a Syrian family in Amman, loaded up with donated clothes that she has collected. She hopes to set an example for other Jordanians.

"The situation is becoming more and more complicated," she said. "Jordanians are getting upset, and Syrians of course as well." She says Jordanians are increasingly asking why they have to be the ones to deal with all the refugees; Syrians point out that Jordan is receiving international help, and ask why they aren't benefitting from it. "That's the current mood in my country," she says.

Stadtansicht Amman Moschee

Many Syrian refugees have found shelter in the Jordanian capital, Amman

Jordan and Syria have always been closely linked, both economically and culturally, but the long-running conflict has strained those ties, says Adawe. "A house like this one here was previously rented for around 150 dinars (about 167 euros). But now the owners are asking for twice as much, 300 dinars. A Jordanian cannot afford that," she says.

"The labor market is also affected. Our sons aren't able to find work, because the Syrians will work for less money," she says, pointing out that Syrians also aren't paid any benefits like health care, savings which are attractive to cost-conscious employers. In addition, she says, Syrians "can be let go at the end of the month without any problems."

No hope for peace

The Syrian family that Adawe visits is well aware of the difficulties. Back in Syria, they owned a home, and sent the children to school and university. Today, they're glad of any help they can get.

They've been living in Jordan for two years, first in the Zaatari refugee camp and now in a small apartment on the outskirts of Amman. They live on food stamps from the United Nations and other donations. As a refugee, the father of the family doesn't qualify for a work permit - like most, he's only able to find work illegally. His wife, Weedad, is not hopeful.

"I don't see it getting any better, because it doesn't look as if there will be a quick resolution in Syria," she says. "Now they're starting to restrict aid here as well. How can I send the children to school?"

"We're not able to plan for the future. We're living from day to day, and even the near future is uncertain," she says. The family is expecting a long stay in exile in their new home. The longer the crisis and the war lasts, the greater the challenge for both Syrians and Jordanians.