Syrian refugees in Jordan say they are so miserable that they would rather face “inevitable death” in their war-torn country than live in conditions that have sparked riots.
With Syria’s war now in its fourth year, many of the 100,000 refugees in the sprawling desert Zaatari camp in northern Jordan feel the world has forgotten their struggle to survive.
“Syrian refugees would rather go home and face inevitable death than swallow the bitterness of displacement,” Abu Isam, 52, told AFP before his cousins and other refugees boarded a bus back to Syria.
“Nobody cares about Syrian refugees — the world has fooled us. They said our crisis will not last long. Now I feel a solution to our dilemma is impossible,” he said.
Rioting and protests over poor living conditions have erupted periodically since Zaatari, near the border with Syria, opened two years ago.
Early this month, rioting killed one refugee and wounded dozens, mostly policemen. It was the first time a refugee has been killed.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR and Jordanian authorities said the rioting was over the detention of a refugee family and a driver who tried to smuggle them out.
“People are fed up with conditions at the camp. Many people are going home despite the destruction and war,” said Hasan Zubi, adding that his wife and children had recently returned to Syria because of “inhuman conditions” at Zaatari.
Zubi, 68, and other refugees said the riots erupted after police prevented three Syrian women from leaving the densely populated, seven-square-kilometer (2.8-square-mile) camp without permission.
“One of them started shouting and calling for help, claiming a policeman attacked her and the rioting started. We sought refuge in this country and we need to respect it and respect its laws,” added the former bus driver from Daraa.
Big prison, small prison
Around 100 refugees leave Zaatari daily to go back to Syria, and more than 100,000 have returned since the conflict in their country began in 2011, government figures show.
But every day, some 500 Syrians also seek refuge in Jordan, which now houses more than 500,000 refugees — 80 percent of them in urban areas.
“We fled a big prison in Syria to a small prison in Jordan and it looks like we are going to die here,” said Alaa, 37, from Syria’s central city of Homs.
“We want a normal life… to eat, drink and live normally. Is that too much to wish for?”
The refugees complain about the dust and electricity shortages at Zaatari, where summer temperatures rise to around 40ºC (104 Fahrenheit) and in winter plunge below freezing.
Last year, the worst winter storm in a decade turned Zaatari into a muddy swamp, blowing away at least 500 tents. Most have since been replaced with caravans.
Global relief agency CARE International said in a study released Wednesday Syrian refugees in urban areas of Jordan are struggling to cope.
It said a household assessment of more than 2,200 Syrian refugees showed 90 percent living in debt to relatives, landlords, shopkeepers and neighbors.
“The crisis of Syrian refugees has already lasted too long. Even if it finishes tomorrow you have got so much devastation and destruction in Syria… what are people going to go back to?” Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative in Jordan, told AFP.
“People are not fleeing the violence in Syria anymore, they are fleeing the lack of hope for the future.”
‘Tremendous psychological pressure’
Syria’s three-year war has killed more than 150,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with half the population estimated to have fled their homes.
“Many refugees live under tremendous psychological pressure and they want to vent. We are doing what we can to contain them,” Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Rahman, head of Zaatari, told AFP.
“It is very difficult to run a place where more than 100,000 people of different backgrounds live. There are negative aspects of course, but things are generally under control.”
The refugees see things differently.
“We live like animals here,” said Ziad Shehadat, 32.
His father, Yussef, was even more outspoken.
“Honestly, death in my country is better than humiliation here. I feel as if we don’t exist at all,” he said.