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Four million in four years: reflections from the region

11 September 2015


Horizons: a Syrian refugee boy plays with a tire at Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, in July. Approximately 430,000 refugees have passed through the camp, which is now home to 80,000. Three schools are operating, and 15,500 of an estimated 28,000 school age children are currently enrolled

Horizons: a Syrian refugee boy plays with a tire at Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, in July. Approximately 430,000 refugees have passed thr...

SHORTLY before I went to Jordan this year to visit Syrian refugees, I read the country’s response plan: 200 pages of detailed projections and calculations that culminated in a request for $2,991,736,900 (note the precision) to enable the country to accommodate more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, and, importantly, cope with the impact on the communities hosting them.

In contrast with the chaos and recriminations that have characterised the arrival of the refugees in Europe, and despite the recognition in its pages that public services “threaten to buckle”, this weighty document, with its colour- coded charts and neat tables, offered cool-headed reassurance. “I have every confidence that, through our joint efforts, we will be able to achieve the objectives,” the Minister of Planning and International Co-operation, Dr Ibrahim Saif, wrote in his foreword.

What I saw in Jordan impressed me (News, 30 Janunary). At a school in Zarqa, more than 700 Syrian children had been educated in double shifts. A new refugee camp at Azraq had been built to house 130,000 refugees, and was, at the time, only ten per cent full (it is currently home to 23,000). 

In contrast to the sprawling Zaatari camp, thousands of neat white portacabins were laid out across the desert landscape (News, 13 March, 2015). The Syrians that I met were resilient, proud, and largely good-humoured. That said, nobody wants to raise their children in a metal container in the desert. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right that poor conditions in camps act as a "driver" for attempts to reach Europe, but most refugees in Jordan are living in poor host communities, unable to work and desperately worried about their children's future. 

I don’t want to draw a crude comparison between the responses of Jordan and the United Kingdom. We are two very different countries. And I have some sympathy for the Government’s argument that it makes sense for Syrians to remain in the region. Although homesick, those that I met spoke of Jordan as “a brother”. A shared language means less disruption for children’s schooling.

The refugees that I met were hugely patriotic. When I asked one little boy, Mohammed, about his dreams for the future, he told me: “Nothing. I just want to go back to Syria, and guide people back to their homes and houses.”

Although I appreciate the good intent of the former leader of the Opposition, Harriet Harman, in arguing that Syrian children will be the NHS’s future consultants, it is vitally important that the millions living in the region are equipped to rebuild their home.

The initiative “No Lost Generation”, launched by the UN and charities two years ago next month, sounds hollow today. More than two million children in Syria are not attending school. In  Lebanon, where Syrians now make up a fifth of the population, 80 per cent of Syrian refugee children are not enrolled.

We can rightly be proud of our commitment to resourcing the humanitarian effort in the region. But, given the numbers now being hosted by these countries, which are far less wealthy than our own, it is vital that we continue to support them.

The UN’s appeal is just 37-per-cent funded. This week, World Vision warned that the shortfall had led to “drastic measures”, including significant cuts to food aid. As of this month, 229,000 of the 440,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan living outside the camps have been cut off from World Food Programme aid. No donors have come forward to reverse this.

I am glad that the Syrian crisis has returned to the front pages, but hope that the millions who remain within Syria — where the development situation has regressed by four decades in four years — and in the heroic neighbouring countries, will not be forgotten amid the panic about what we do now that a minority is on our own borders.

You can donate to World Vision's Syria appeal here

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