Urban Refugees: Overlooked, Underprovided

By Alec Hernández

As the military conflict in Syria stretches past its four-year mark, refugees continue to spill across the country’s borders, whether into nearby refugee camps or boats heading to southern European shores. Over the summer, it was hard to ignore the images of refugees swimming toward Greek and Italian beaches, eventually to trek across the country by foot or to spend all of their remaining money on a train ticket to yet another foreign country far from home. While international efforts have been almost entirely focused on assisting the refugees crossing the Mediterranean, little is done to help a similar group of their often overlooked counterparts: urban refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

Upon their initial arrival to Jordan, many decide to remain in United Nations-sanctioned camps, but as the crisis in Syria drags on, this option is becoming less feasible. Zaatari Refugee Camp, overseen by the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), sits a mere ten miles away from the Syrian border and is often a refugee’s first choice for accommodation. However, little space remains in the camp as the conflict moves into its fourth year. Likewise, officials placed a cap of 80,000 refugees allowed in the camp earlier this month, leaving many to find other options.

For those avoiding a potentially perilous and expensive journey to Europe, many Syrians choose to leave UN sanctioned camps in Jordan and Lebanon and travel to cities across those countries instead. For those staying in Jordan, many choose smaller, northern cities like Mafraq or Ramtha, or larger capitals like Beirut or Amman. Although other refugee camps across these countries can offer accommodation, many trade lives in the camps for ones in the city based on two factors: living conditions within the camps, and how much money in savings a family or individual possesses.

Even though these refugee camps offer a much better alternative than returning to Syria or Iraq, the camps are often too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, or feature cramped living spaces. Many families come across the border with a decent amount of money saved from their lives in Syria, and figure that they will be able to make ends meet in a city with their savings until they can find an alternative source of income. Trying to avoid both having to go back to Syria and staying in an uncomfortable camp, these families with savings decide to try their luck in the city. On the other hand, families that are not as fortunate as to have substantial savings with them as they cross the border are often confronted with camps at full capacity, giving them the choice between returning to Syria or finding a new home in the city. The choice seems to be quite clear – embracing city life is necessary to maintain a somewhat normal life.

Refugees who have taken to the city, however, often times are not met with these “luxuries.” For instance, Jordanian law mandates that refugees living outside of the camps cannot legally take a job. For a country like Jordan with a preexisting jobs crisis and a lack of natural resources, adding refugees to the national workforce would only cause tension and strife. At the same time, the increase in demand for housing in Jordanian cities has caused rents to inflate, sometimes to three or four times its typical price. Without a fixed income, urban refugees often find themselves among the country’s poorest, scrambling to find enough money for food and shelter.

According to the BBC, internationally recognized refugees receive an allowance of about $140 per month, which typically does not make ends meet for the thousands of Syrians living in Amman and other cities. Al Jazeera calculates that the average monthly expenditure of a Syrian family living in East Amman is around 297 JOD ($418 USD), including 193 JOD ($272 USD) for rent, which vastly exceeds their monthly allowance. Although it is technically illegal for Syrians and other refugees to work, many find under-the-table jobs to help make ends meet. Usually, Syrians are given low-level jobs in the service, and particularly food, industry. These jobs may prove to bring in some flexible income for these families, but they hardly help as their salaries are quite low. At the same time, these under-the-table jobs can often lead to deportation as they are illegal. Not only do these jobs require immense amounts of effort for small paychecks, but refugees are constantly faced with the danger of deportation if they are caught.

Likewise, a UNHCR survey found that over 60% of school-eligible children did not attend school in the 2012-2013 school year. Jordanian public schools, already overstretched, have to then maintain the growing population of child refugees, soaring above 85,000 in the past year. Unable to pay tuition for private schools, these Syrians typically keep their children home from school for the sake of saving income. This same survey found that 16% of these families also lacked sanitary water and food supplies, and calculated a total of 600,000 refugees living in Jordanian cities outside of camps. Unlike the Syrians with support in the UNHCR camps, urban refugees are left lacking money and support.

While little resources seem to be available for these refugee communities, small NGOs like the Collateral Repair Project (www.collateralrepairproject.com) are constantly trying to improve the lives of these people. Running off of mostly foreign-based donations, CRP helps provide refugee families with food stamps, reliable shelter, stipends for school tuitions, and a community center to gather in. While even these types of NGOs are overstretched, the help they provide to these communities is far more than that of any other type of international organization. Likewise, while the Jordanian government may not be able to help these refugees as much as they would like, refugees rarely face severe social discrimination in Jordan in particular. Jordanians are often known for their hospitality, and are typically quite willing to help those in need. According to Jordanian member of parliament, Mustafa Hamarneh, Jordanians are mostly concerned with losing their jobs or having jobs taken away by refugees, and seem to have no personal issues with the refugees themselves. In an interview with PBS, Hamarneh mentioned, “Once the dust settles down at the end of the day, these are Arabs, and people see them as fellow Arabs.” That being said, a significant amount of responsibility in dealing with this crisis falls upon the shoulders of the international community, as countries like Jordan may not be entirely financially equipped to handle such influxes of migrants and refugees.

As we watch more and more refugees run through Eastern Europe or crowd into understaffed refugee camps, remember those who are behind the scenes, living quietly in urban poverty away from concerned western eyes.

Alec Hernández ’18 is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Alec can be reached at alec.hernandez@yale.edu