Saturday, March 24, 2012

Syria: Help needed to cope with Syrian refugees

Photo: Heba Aly/IRIN. Better than nothing, but refugee Um Mohamed has water only once a week

Source: IRIN

REMTHA, 23 March 2012 (IRIN) - At the edge of this busy border town, a set of old, overcrowded buildings has become a transit house for Syrians fleeing to Jordan illegally.

Designed for 500, the compound now houses up to 800 at times. Those who do not find space inside sleep in the open under trees. The compound has no gate - external traffic passes through it as children run around without supervision. The toilets are strewn with days-old faeces, with women’s sanitary napkins piled up in the corners.

No one is fond of the place - not the UN, not the NGOs which provide services, not the Jordanian police officer who runs it - but there are few alternatives.

Apartments in northern Jordanian border towns are filling up and some landlords have doubled the rent.

Refugee camps are already under construction along the border. But opening them entails a political decision Amman is not yet willing to take, as Jordan tries to play a delicate balancing act between providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians without calling them refugees and taking strong action that would offend the Syrian regime.

Nor are camps an ideal solution for aid workers, who much prefer refugees to live a normal life in apartments.

But as Andrew Harper, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan, put it: “If there is a lack of international support, there may be no option.”

Until now, the UN has played a limited role in the response to the Syrian refugee crisis. But as a year-long anti-government uprising in Syria becomes increasingly violent and refugees keep streaming out, the scale of the problem is becoming too big for host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to handle alone. And with the situation expected to get worse, the UN is now trying to prepare for a future influx.

“On a daily basis, there are hundreds of people who continue crossing the border,” said Panos Moumtiz, newly-appointed regional refugee coordinator for UNHCR. Given there is yet “no light at the end of the tunnel” with regards to a political solution, he told IRIN, “we know that on a pragmatic level, we need to be ready.”

UNHCR today appealed for US$84 million to cover immediate humanitarian needs for Syrian refugees in the next six months and to ensure systems are in place to be prepared for more arrivals. That price tag is likely to rise as needs are re-assessed in the coming weeks and months.

There are currently more than 30,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR across the region, but around 96,500 in need of humanitarian assistance, the agency says. That number is expected to double, according to the UN’s contingency plans.

“The burden”

Jordan is fast becoming the most desirable option for Syrian refugees. Some come here after fleeing first to Lebanon or Turkey, or from as far as northern Syrian cities Aleppo and Idlib. Syrians say they feel safer here than in Lebanon, where some elements of its government support the Syrian regime; and more comfortable than in Turkey, where they may encounter linguistic problems.

So far, Jordan has done a reasonable job of responding to the crisis. But the refugees are increasingly testing the small, resource-poor country’s weak infrastructure, already stretched to the limit by the presence of nearly half a million Iraqi refugees.

Jordan’s economy is based mainly on remittances and foreign aid. The national debt is $20 million and unemployment stands at 13 percent. The government subsidizes bread, water and fuel; and is also shouldering the cost of Syrians going to school and accessing medical care for free.

It is a country accustomed to hosting refugees - they have flowed here during several crises over the decades - and people do not question their presence.

“Of course they are welcome here. Where else would they go?” one taxi driver said.

But from the taxi drivers to the highest levels of government, there is a level of resentment at having to carry the “burden”, as government spokesman Rakan al-Majali put it, alone.

“We did not want to demand international help before responding to this crisis,” he told IRIN. “But we are confident that our Arab brothers and the international community will not let Jordan down.”

Needs beginning to increase

Many Jordanian families - economically vulnerable to begin with - have been hosting Syrian refugees in their homes.

“They’re basically sharing their shirts, their gas bottles, their bedrooms - anything they can share,” Harper told IRIN. “There’s an incredible demonstration of good will at the moment, but there’s only so much resources people can share before it becomes exhausted.”

According to community-based organizations, that has already begun happening. Jordanians who had rented out apartments to Syrians for free can no longer afford to do so and have, in some cases, had to kick their guests out.

Up six flights of dark, dusty stairs, Um Maher and eight other members of her family live in a soulless apartment with mouldy, damp walls, donated beds, no toilets, and running water only once as week. They fled from the Syrian flashpoint city of Homs. Her husband now works for 250 Jordanian dinars a month, all but 40 of which goes towards medicine and rent.

It is people like these UNHCR wishes to support financially, but has so far been unable to do so on a wide scale. While the family is registered with UNHCR, the only help it has received is from the Syrian Woman Association, a community group formed by an older wave of Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in the 1980s.

Short of cash

The more protracted their stay in Jordan, the more vulnerable these new refugees are becoming. Some were able to support themselves when they first arrived, but have since exhausted their savings. The Islamic Charity Center Society, for one, is registering people who have been in Jordan for months but only now are starting to need assistance.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says refugee children as young as eight or nine are working in coffee shops and garages because their families are so desperate for cash inflow. The agency is also concerned about families marrying off their daughters young as a way of coping.

New arrivals from Syria are arriving with less means.

Nithal Hassan spent four months hiding in a cave outside the southern Syrian town of Dera’a after security services came looking for him. By the time he arrived in the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, he had the equivalent of $15 in his pocket.

As the crisis in Syria continues, many have gone extended periods without work and have had to spend their savings to survive. They cannot sell their homes or cars because the market has stopped. Those who do come with the hugely de-valued Syrian pound cannot exchange it for much on the market.

“So even the rich are needy when they arrive,” said Masara Srass, who leads the Syrian refugee response for the Syrian Woman Association.

The long-standing Syrian community in Jordan absorbed many of the new arrivals into their homes and helped them with cash, food, blankets and furniture. But as the number grows, this, too, has become unsustainable. And the organizations themselves need support.

“We want international organizations to help us build our capacity, give us money. They need to help. Otherwise, how can we keep working?” said Eqbal Ebrahim of the association.

One of the weaknesses of these local groups has been coordination. There is an excess of food and a lack of cash to support families who are renting. Various different organizations have been registering families, and according to aid workers, many of the latter have received aid many times over.

Local aid agencies are already trying to amalgamate all their lists, but UNHCR hopes its new response plan will contribute to improved coordination and a clearer strategy for the government’s response - which has come under some criticism for lacking direction and having no clear lead ministry.

“If the government had a plan, would the situation here have gotten so bad?” asked one aid worker at the Remtha guesthouse.

International burden-sharing

The government spokesperson, al-Majali, said the number of Syrians in the country has so far been manageable.

“The movement between the two countries has always existed in the thousands,” he said. “Now they’re staying longer - these are just details.”

The government is ready to open the camps as soon as the numbers necessitate it, he added. “We are prepared to help our brothers no matter what the size of the problem.”

But Harper insists the international community needs to be part of the solution.

“If [we] are serious about international burden-sharing and trying to help those in need, then Jordan is doing the first step, the second, third and fourth steps, but at some point, it can’t do it alone.”

The UNHCR response plan includes cash assistance for vulnerable Syrian families and support for host communities, including the refurbishing of schools and health facilities.

As part of the plan, UNICEF hopes to repay the Jordanian government for the tuition and textbooks costs of Syrian children going to school, who number at least 10,000 according to al-Majali.

Through its partners, it is also hoping to provide psycho-social support for traumatized children who wet their beds, jump at every sound and whose vocabulary has come to include blood-covered streets and rocket-propelled grenades.

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) is requesting funds to be able to monitor the border and evacuate Palestinians or Iraqis in Syria who may eventually need to flee.

The Jordanian government will also be conducting an assessment of the refugee population in the coming weeks, to better define the needs.

Some agencies, like UNICEF, present in Jordan for decades, have been able to use some of their own funds to start projects immediately. But others, like UNHCR, have been hamstrung. “In Jordan, we’ve got basically nothing to work with at the moment,” Harper said.

As funds become available and the UN starts providing more assistance, people who have not registered with UNHCR are likely to come out of the woodwork, which will put an additional pressure on aid, he warned.

The UN is preparing a separate three-month plan for a response to humanitarian needs within Syria, where there are an estimated 200,000 displaced people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. It will be launched in a few weeks, following the results of a government-led assessment of affected areas, in which technical staff from the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are also taking part.

Other agencies, like the Jordan Red Crescent, will be launching their own appeals.

“The capitals around the world who are deploring what is going on [in Syria] should also step up [with support],” Harper said. “We will see whether the rhetoric is hollow on the humanitarian front.”