I’m at Azraq refugee camp, about 100 kilometres east of Jordan’s capital city, Amman, but I may as well be on another planet. I’m far from the bustling streets, the scent of that morning’s freshly baked bread, the restaurants, the gleaming shopping malls and tall buildings. The atmosphere in Azraq is uncomfortably still. I look out at the large expanse of camp ahead of me, currently home to approximately 18,000 Syrian refugees. The hot sun beats down on the neat and orderly rows of white corrugated iron shelters, each one indistinguishable from the next. There are no trees or grass, only a vast bleak landscape of earth and sand. A lonely young boy walks by our vehicle kicking a stone with his bare foot.
I’m here to monitor a large water and sanitation project which World Vision is implementing in partnership with UNICEF. It’s excellent work. But what is life like in this camp for Syrian refugees? It’s now heading towards 5 years since the conflict began. The camp has schools, a market, a community centre, a mosque and health facilities, but the men and women sitting on the bare earth outside their shelters are not permitted to work nor leave the camp without permission. There is no electricity. Parents supervise their children not knowing what the future holds for them.
Outside the camp’s registration building, we find a hundred or so people sitting under a shelter with their bags and children gathered around them.
“New arrivals?” I ask my colleague, himself a Palestinian refugee born and raised in Jordan.
“No, they’re leaving the camp,” he replies.
“Where are they going?”
He looks at me. “Back to Syria. There is no future for them here. It’s easier for them to earn an income in Syria than stay here. The bus comes once a week. They are waiting for the bus.”
He tells me that at Azraq, 100 people a week, discouraged by the severe restrictions placed on their ability to work and move within Jordan and cuts in the value of the cash vouchers they receive from the World Food Programme, are making the life-threatening decision to return to Syria, a war-torn country from which 4 million people have fled, with another 7.6 million people internally displaced and living as best they can. It is the most catastrophic exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago and the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.
Some of the returnees will leave family members behind, in the hope that their children can receive some education and to ensure their safety. Other families return home together, unwilling to be separated. I drive back to Amman with a heavy heart and no answer to the question that is asked so often by a people driven from their homes: “Why doesn’t the world care about Syria?”