Syrian women waiting for a bus outside Zaatari refugee camp. Photo: Manish Rai
Syrian women waiting for a bus outside Zaatari refugee camp. Photo: Manish Rai

The five-year Syrian conflict has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis after World War II. Amid increasing population displacements, an entire generation of children are exposed to war and violence, and deprived of basic services, education and protection.

The intensity of war, the failure of diplomacy and scarce resources make the mission to rehabilitate refugees a grim task. Overpopulated refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan are becoming breeding grounds for disease, conflict and extremism due to the poor living conditions.

I recently visited the Zaatari camp and Al-Mafraq and Ar-Ramtha cities in northern Jordan which are flooded with refugees from the arid farming towns on Syria’s southern border province of Daara, where teenage schoolboys sparked the revolution to topple the Assad regime in March 2011.

Zaatari, one of the largest Syrian refugee camps housing more than 100,000 refugees, is gradually becoming a permanent settlement. Most of the camp residents I met with said they do not see any immediate solution to the Syrian conflict.

Almost 80% of Syrian refugees live in Jordan’s northern border cities of Al-Mafraq and Ar-Ramtha. The remaining 20% live in Zaatari, Marjeeb al-Fahood, Cyber City and Al-Azraq camps. Northern Jordan indeed has taken on the feel of a Syrian town.

Of all Syria’s neighbors, Jordan has maintained the most controlled and stable border policy while receiving a significant number of refugees throughout the ongoing conflict. It now has the third largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, with 635,000 registered refugees. Despite the horrors they endured in the past, the refugees I met with said their dream is to return to Syria.

While Syria’s neighbors such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which share the same religion and culture, provide a home away from home for thousands of refugees, it is unlikely they will allow them to live there permanently. However, as the Syrian conflict drags on, large-scale return of refugees is not going to happen anytime soon.

Syria’s immediate need is the return of peace and along with the return of refugees to help rebuild the nation. Syria’s population has shrunk by 20% to 30% with 50% of the population internally displaced and highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs having left the country.

The enrollment rate of children in schools has fallen which will negatively impact the country’s potential output for years to come. The Syrian center for policy research estimated in 2015 that the loss of years of schooling by children represents a human capital deficit of US$5 billion in education investment.

I met with Jalal in Ar-Ramtha who has three children and only one of the goes to school as Jalal cannot afford to enroll the other two.

Capital flight also poses a major hurdle for Syria in reviving commerce and trade whenever peace is restored and nation rebuilding begins. Abzayid, a Syrian who runs a shop in Ar-Ramtha in partnership with a local Jordanian, says he sold everything back home in Daara before fleeing to Jordan with his savings.

If peace is restored in Syria, voluntary repatriation of refugees will be a viable option. But to encourage refugees to return, a safe and healthy environment has to be created for them. The United Nations and its agencies should help by offering a special relief package for voluntary repatriation like providing seed capital for businessmen and traders, free schooling for children, assistance for rebuilding homes and vocational training for craftsman.

When the refugees return, their brave decision should be rewarded with them being received by the UN agencies to help them rebuild their lives rather than being left to the mercy of the local government. They need continued support from the international community during the post-conflict phase.