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Are We Failing Syria's Refugees?

16/09/2013 13:30 BST | Updated 15/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Unlike a military intervention in Syria, providing sufficient support to the country's refugees is something that should require no debate.

The UN has appealed to the world to plug the $2billion shortfall of funds needed now to keep the seven million people displaced by the conflict safe and healthy. Among the donors, the US has earmarked around $800million in aid, yet it has only handed over half of this. The UK has pledged $400million. A large proportion of that has also not been paid so far, according to UN figures.

On a recent visit to Zaatari, the now-infamous refugee camp that sprawls an area of desert in North Jordan, I saw its citizens in various stages of declining health and spirit. Several people I spoke to said they're hungry, thirsty, or both.

Education is also a problem. There are schools at the camp, but about 30% of school-aged children regularly attend classes. UNICEF says there are many reasons for this, including poor nutrition, the need to work to support their families and the stiflingly hot weather in the summer.

"I'm not going to school. Not everybody goes," Jadal, who is 10, told me. "To go I need books."

He instead spends his days sitting in his uncle's modest grocery shop, having been out of education for over a year.

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Just 30% of the school-aged children living at Zaatari regularly attend classes

Za'atari is a place where basic sanitation is lacking. Water is shipped in by trucks and deposited into large reservoir tanks that line its dusty streets. And, somewhere along the way, it gets contaminated; triggering infections and other illnesses throughout the camp.

"We have to buy bottles of water; we don't want to use the water from the tanks as we'll get sick," said Manal Masalmeh, who is in her 40's. "We sell everything just to buy water."

While the organisations working there advise Zaatari's citizens to boil the tank water before drinking, this is difficult to convey to a thirsty child trying to cope with the desert's heat. As a result, a number develop infections and kidney problems.

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Contaminated water supplies are a major source of illness

Despite escaping the brutal conflict, some young Syrians at the camp are keen to return to their homeland. They are restless. Frustrated they've had to abandon their education and careers.

"There's no life here. I want to go home. Hopefully, if god wills it, I can go back next year. Otherwise we'll die here," said Abdul, who runs a small shop at Zaatari selling some cereal and jam. In Syria he was a respected police officer.

Several of the camp's newly formed streets are now lined with makeshift shops, offering anything from groceries, to new jeans, to much-desired electric fans. Some, such as the mobile phone repair shop, turn a decent trade. Others, such as a flashy men's clothing store selling trainers and brightly-coloured T-shirts, do not.

"There's not a lot of money here. When we open the doors people come in, but there's not a lot of business. People here are very poor," said the shop's owner Rafat, 20.

The shop, however, brings Rafat some much-needed sense of purpose. Until recently he was fighting against Assad's forces with a military group called In the Way of God. He eventually decided to come to Zaatari, fleeing the path of the missiles. But he deems his existence at the camp unbearable and wants to go home.

"A lot of people go back. I have friends who have done it. Being here is bad, there is not much food and you can't really do a lot of things," he added.

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Shops at the camp lack customers

Life has stood still for the people here. At some point, hopefully, Syria will begin to find peace. When that time comes most of these people will return. And they will need to be healthy and educated to succeed in re-building their nation.

Through funding and other forms of humanitarian assistance, this is something we can help them prepare for right now.