Syrian refugees increasingly return to war zones in homeland

By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AP) — Growing numbers of Syrian refugees are returning to their war-ravaged homeland from Jordan because they can’t survive in exile after drastic aid cuts, can’t afford to pay smugglers to sneak them into Europe or are simply homesick.

The returns, along with the increasing migration to Europe, signal that conditions in regional host countries have become increasingly intolerable, the refugees and aid officials said.

“We stopped getting any aid,” said 47-year-old Adnan, waiting at the U.N.-run Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan to sign up his family for the return bus to the Syrian border, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. He only gave his first name for fear of repercussions from Syrian authorities.

The U.N. refugee agency views the rising number of departures with concern.

“It is a dangerous choice for people to make,” said Andrew Harper, head of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan. He said the return of refugees, mainly women and children, to war-torn Syria “signals a failure of the international protection regime.”

More than 4 million Syrians fled civil war in their country, now in its fifth year. Most settled in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, a majority living in urban areas. Banned from working legally, they depend on aid and odd jobs. Recent aid cuts by underfunded agencies, particularly the World Food Program, have been devastating.

In Jordan, more than half a million urban refugees were hit hardest, while about 100,000 living in camps were not affected by the latest cuts.

Adnan and his family fled their village in the province of Daraa on the Jordanian border — birthplace of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad — more than three years ago. They settled in Ramtha, a Jordanian town just a few miles from Daraa’s provincial capital.

The family of 12 lived on food vouchers, while the two oldest sons sold vegetables to cover the rent of $250. Two months ago, all income dried up. The two oldest sons, their 14-year-old brother and a sister headed to Europe — two are already in Sweden and two are still in Turkey — while the family lost all food aid.

“There is no money,” said Adnan, who plans to follow his children to Europe as soon as possible.

But the journey costs thousands of dollars, including $400 for a new Syrian passport that enables him to fly to Turkey without a visa, as well as a plane ticket and bribes for the smugglers. Adnan said he can’t afford to pay for the rest of the family — his mother, his wife, a six-year-old son, two daughters-in-law and two granddaughters.

On Thursday, he waited outside the U.N. office in Zaatari to register the women and children for return to Syria. The plan is for them to go back to their village of Seel and eventually reach Turkey overland. He shrugged when asked about the risks of travel in Syria, saying he simply had no choice.

The “check-out” takes place in a complex of trailers on the edge of Zaatari. Refugees fill in Jordanian departure forms and are briefed by the U.N. refugee agency. The returnees are cautioned about the risks.

“The road to Europe is very difficult,” U.N. registration officer Qusai Tanash told Adnan’s wife, suggesting it would be safer for the family in Jordan until they can join the others legally in Europe.

“Family reunification takes a long time,” she said, adding that she would stay in Jordan if she could afford it.

Another returnee, 21-year-old Khaled, said he will stay in Syria. “I miss my mother, and I miss my family,” he said. Khaled said Jordanian authorities prevented his mother from entering the country. “If my mother was allowed to enter, I wouldn’t think to go back to Syria,” he said.

In recent months, departures by far outnumbered arrivals, and the outflow is increasing.

About 30 to 75 refugees enter Jordan every day, according to Hovig Etyemezian, the Zaatari camp’s director.