Already unable to cope with refugees, Syria’s neighbors brace for more

McClatchy NewspapersApril 30, 2013 

— Aarsal’s city hall now stays open seven days a week to accommodate the refugees camped in the building’s courtyard, waiting to be told where they might find shelter.

“We have no money. We can’t afford anything,” said a woman from a Syrian village near the border, who’d been sleeping in the courtyard for five days and had brought nothing with her from Syria save the clothes she wore. Still fearing reprisals by the government she’d fled, she declined to give her name.

As the woman spoke, a truck pulled up outside, its bed filled with a few dozen refugees and the scant belongings they’d brought with them. The driver of the truck barely stopped long enough for his passengers to disembark.

“There are more waiting to cross,” he said.

The United Nations says about 1.5 million Syrians have fled to the countries that border Syria, and just as on the Lebanese border, more are waiting to enter Jordan and Turkey as well. Aid agencies already have said they cannot cope with the problem in its current state, let alone the arrival of more Syrians, a trend that appears inevitable as Syrian government troops push to regain territory lost to rebels along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders.

Many of those fleeing now have been displaced inside Syria multiple times, and officials in Aarsal, which lies on a longtime smuggling route between the countries, say they’re expecting the biggest influx yet.

“There are many refugees from other places (inside Syria) in the villages that are being occupied now” by the Syrian army, said Ahmed Fleiti, who works at city hall. He said he had no idea where the latest refugees might be housed.

Lebanon, a country of about 4 million, is already home to about a half-million Syrian refugees. Affordable housing was in short supply even before the war in Syria. Now it’s difficult to find at all.

Jordan, a country of about 6.5 million, also is being overwhelmed. Aid officials expect the number of Syrians in Jordan to reach 1.2 million by the end of the year. They’re arriving at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a day, according to the army. Some others suggest the rate is higher.

On both borders, the refugees are predominantly women, children and older people. Young men often stay behind to fight or out of fear that they’ll be arrested at Syrian army checkpoints.

“When we decided to leave, we found that the army is now stopping people from going through. They ask you, ‘Where are you going?’ and if you tell them to Jordan they turn you back. I lied and told them, ‘We’re going to the next village to meet a bride for my son,’ and they let us go through and we came here,” said Yassin, a father of four who fled his village in southern Jordan over the weekend after fighting had broken out there. He, too, declined to give his full name, for fear of government reprisals.

The Zaatari refugee camp, where Yasssin brought his family, is now Jordan’s fifth largest city, with 50,000 refugees.

The Jordanian government is opening other camps, and struggling to cope with the 500,000 refugees total who’ve fled there, many of whom have settled in the country’s urban areas, where it’s harder to provide services.

Mohammad Abu Khudayr, a Jordanian doctor who’s in charge of medical services at Zaatari, said illness among the refugees was stretching Jordan’s health care system.

“The vaccines that we need for the country are being used on the refugees, and the supply is not being replenished,” he said. “We’re told that we should administer the vaccines and we do that, but the different aid groups then come and tell us that they are also totally overloaded and cannot replenish our supply. If an outbreak happens in Jordan, there is no way we’ll be able to deal with it,” he said.

Then there’s the impact of the intensifying war.

“There has been a marked increase in war wounds lately,” he said. “It seems that the pace of the war is becoming worse, and people can’t get the care they need elsewhere so they try to come to Zaatari.”

Though rebels control significant swaths of territory along the Iraqi and Turkish borders in Syria’s north and east, there’s no place in the country that’s safe from government airstrikes or ballistic missiles. While the Turkish and Jordanian governments have raised the idea of creating no-fly ones or buffer zones where civilians would be protected, there have been no concrete moves on either border to do so.

“The number of refugees is growing, and it is getting out of control,” said Osman Atalay, a board member of IHH, a Turkish charity that delivers aid to Syria and assists refugees who’ve fled. “The state is establishing more camps, but the demand is greater than the supply. The only answer is to have a safe zone inside Syria. The worst days are ahead.”

“Now there is no food at all,” said Issam, a rebel fighter in southern Syria, who declined to use his last name for fear of reprisals by the Syrian government. “For 11 days, we’ve had no flour coming in. I see my son going hungry.”

McClatchy special correspondent Bulos reported from Zaatari, Jordan. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @davidjenders

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