THE BLOG

South of Syria

25/05/2016 08:41 | Updated 25 May 2016

On the way to the first of our house calls in central Amman, Lana talked about the Syrian family she had visited the day before. In the years since she had been working as a field assistant for UNHCR in Jordan she had seldom seen such dreadful poverty and such hopelessness as was faced by that particular family.

This was my tenth visit to Jordan since May last year as part of a UK Foreign Office sponsored project assisting with the political reform agenda in Jordan, but it was the first time I had gone out with UNHCR to visit the refugees.

Over the past year I have grown to like and respect Jordan and its people. There are many common bonds and a great many British connections. Frequently when speaking to Jordanian politicians you find that their children are studying at our universities and colleges. In many ways Jordan is a beacon of hope surrounded by conflict - "a ring of fire" - its neighbours include Syria, Iraq, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. There will be new parliamentary elections in the autumn this year with a new voting system. The country is facing tough economic challenges at a time when it is still on the path to development.

In addition, Jordan is currently having to cope with well over a million refugees, including 650,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR. . Many of the Syrian refugees have been welcomed as they are often highly skilled and educated, and have provided a boost to the Jordanian economy, especially now they are allowed to obtain official work permits.

In Europe the focus has perhaps understandably been on the highly visible refugee camps in Jordan but in fact less than twenty percent of the refugees are in the camps - the vast majority are living in the cities, such as Amman, often in very basic accommodation in basements, attics and wherever they can find.

Our first visit of the day was to a Syrian family living in a small flat in Ashrafiyah in central Amman. Before the conflict Raslan, father of five, had been working as an engineer for a Canadian oil company in Syria. He had previously been earning $2000 a month. Their home town of Deir-ez-zor had been blown to pieces and was now half controlled by ISIL and half by the Syrian Government. When he was talking about what had happened he mimed a long beard when describing ISIL to us. He had managed to flee legally with his passport and the majority of his family had followed.

Their accommodation was basic with some damp problems and the whole family was sleeping in one room, but they did have a living room and a simple kitchen and bathroom. Lana told me that it was one of the better examples of refugee accommodation that she had seen.

They were, however, having to pay 30 JD (approximately £29) per month for electricity which was taking up a disproportionately large percentage of their limited income.

During the interview Raslan emotionally showed us a school photograph of a bright faced young boy. This was their eldest son who they hadn't seen for over four years as he was currently fighting with the Syrian Government Army and had been forced to stay on at the end of his conscription.

Lana conducted a comprehensive interview with the whole family, took photographs of the accommodation and fed the answers back simultaneously via a tablet to the UNHCR Jordan office for processing.

Later, Lana explained that the reason this particular family had applied for urgent UNHCR assistance was that they were deeply concerned about their middle son who had not received any education since arriving from Syria two years ago because all of the local schools were full. As they had a variety of income supplies coming in to the family - one of their sons was working in a clothes shop and their daughter had married a Jordanian - she thought it unlikely that they would all be eligible for additional financial assistance but they would see if they could assist with the educational issue for their younger son. With limited resource, these are the kind of tough decisions to be made by UNHCR on a daily basis.

I met a number of other refugees that day with equally tragic personal stories. Jordan is coping remarkably well with the influx of refugees, but they need further support to make sure the situation stays stable. The London Donors' conference was an extremely positive initiative but the money that was pledged has not all arrived. On the other side of June 23rd I sincerely hope that the British Government can again help to take the lead on these issues within the international community, ensuring that at the very least all pledges are fulfilled. With the prospect of further fighting in Aleppo the number of refugees trying to enter Jordan is likely to increase yet again this summer and with the best will in the world there are limits to any country's elasticity.

Baroness Suttie is a Lib Dem peer

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