Analytical Feature: Syrians are risking their lives to come to the EU, when they can settle in a neighbouring Middle Eastern country.
“Illegally. Everything was done illegally,” said Hussain Hemo of his journey in an interview. The story sounds like an excerpt from a Khaled Hosseini book.
The newly-turned adult said his first stop from war-torn Syria was Turkey. Seventeen at the time, he worked there for fifteen hours a day. He was denied payment. From there he set sail to Greece on a very small boat with thirty-five others. He recalls he was quite scared, it was very dangerous. “If you try it, you will feel what I mean,” he said with a laugh.
The teen then traversed through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France. The primary mode of travel was walking – five, 10, 15 kilometers depending on the country. At the end of this month-long ordeal, he lost ten kilograms. “I looked like a sick man,” he said.
His final destination was the UK, where he arrived in a refrigerator truck. He travelled, freezing, for six hours. It turned his body numb, “like a dead body”. “It was very hard but it’s gone,” he concludes.
But why did he not choose an easier route and settle in a neighbouring country – like Jordan perhaps? Hemo seemed surprised by the question. “Only poor people go to Jordan,” he answered.
Hemo is not alone in his reply. “Jordan is the worst place for Syrian refugees, or for any refugees in fact. You can think of it as a prison – a prison in a desert – where all you get is a little cloth to protect you,” said Abdo of the Jordanian refugee camps in an interview. He is another young Syrian in the UK.
Such rejection of Jordan as a suitable host country recurred in interviews with Syrians. These were people who had risked hell and – in some cases literally – high water to come to the EU instead. Another Syrian interviewee, Mohammad Alhomsi, said of refugees in Jordan that “Those are the ones who really want to escape the bad conditions that they are in. They escaped being murdered but now it’s like they are in a prison.”
In fact, in recent surveys by the UN Refugee Agency, about 25% of Syrian refugees in Jordan said they were planning to depart to Turkey, or return to their home country in the midst of war.
About 95% of refugees in Jordan said they are financially desperate – struggling to meet basic living costs and access basic services. Two out of three live under the extreme poverty line of US$3.2/day, while one in six lives under the absolute poverty line of US$1.3/day.
“It’s not that they are not allowed to work. It’s just that the work permit process is too long and too tedious for refugees. As well as many of these refugees don’t have adequate papers or health reports and such details. So, that’s why you see a lot of Syrians working illegally as well as a lot of children and young people working under the radar,” explained Miraj Pradhan in an interview. He is the Head of Communications of UNICEF in Jordan.
The UN reported that almost half of the Syrian refugee households in Jordan rely partly or fully on a child’s income. “This is one of the negative coping mechanisms,” Mr. Pradhan said. “Of course, if child labour decreases, we’ll also have higher school enrolments. We also see child marriages on the rise. That is another negative coping mechanism that we are seeing.”
However, Jordan has its own share of problems in terms of unemployment. The World Bank reports that a third of the youths in the country are unemployed. This has been a trend since before the influx of refugees.
Another problem pushing people to leave is the reduction of aids from international charity organisations. Due to a severe lack of funding, The World Food Programme had to reduce its assistance to almost half a million Syrian refugees in the country.
“International aid is covering only 20-30% of the total cost of refugees. Jordan is feeling the pinch and the pressure on its resources among the population, and also at the level of the government whose budget deficit is increasing and we are borrowing more money just to foot the bill,” said President of the Jordan Economic and Social council, Dr. Jawad Anani, in an interview. He is a former Deputy Prime Minister and an ex Foreign Minister of Jordan.
Medical assistance was free for Syrian refugees. Now that too has been stopped. “This came in late part of last year. Before that it was free for everyone but the government is also having a lot of stress and pressure due to financial constraints and limited support from the international community,” said Mr. Pradhan.
WFP sums up the problem neatly on its website, “Jordan is a resource-poor, food-deficit country with limited agricultural land, no energy resources and scarce water supply.” Its economy has been battered further by global food, fuel and financial crisis. Now at one of the worst economic periods in its history, this country is hosting 632,762 registered Syrian refugees who make up 10% of its population.
“They are not as rich as many other countries like in the EU. They are a small country barely able to survive, themselves. And they faced a huge immigration movement and refugee crisis when the Iraq war happened, and now with the Syrian crisis. It’s disastrous to them,” said Mr. Alhomsi.
Thus, despite much rage and complaints about the condition of Syrians in the country, there remained an acknowledgment of Jordan’s helplessness among interviewees. “Actually Jordan gave Syrians a lot. But they can’t do much for them. Because Jordan – and Lebanon as well – are poor countries, not like the UK. They can’t do more than that,” said Najee*, a refugee in the UK.
As is apparent, there was also the common opinion that countries in the EU, such as the UK, can cater to the needs of refugees better. However, for those who made it, not everything is perfect.
Mr. Alhomsi came from Syria with his wife to the UK for a postgraduate degree. She became pregnant and went through severe pregnancy complications. They had no help from friends or family. No one from their family was granted a visa because of the Syrian crisis. It was suspected that the relative might stay and apply for asylum.
“The crisis going on in Syria is somehow having an indirect or maybe direct impact on Syrian people all over the world. Because if there weren’t any problems in Syria, definitely my wife’s mom would be able to come, or my mom, or both our families would be able to join us during the birth of our daughter,” Mr. Alhomsi said. “Believe it or not, my daughter is two years old. She knows nobody from our family, neither my side nor her mom’s side. Just because we are Syrians.”
“I’m blessed being here in the UK. And I’m grateful. Even though it took time and it was late, and we’ve suffered a lot in the past two years,” Alhomsi continued. “But I’m blessed by my situation. Other people are not finding anything to drink, or anything to wear, to be warm in this aggressive winter.” And so Mr. Alhomsi summed up an oft-repeated perspective of the UK as lesser of two evils.
Cengo*, a Syrian refugee, said in an interview, “Here, the first day, I arrived, they said, ‘Go, find for yourself a job. Any job.’ I went to jobcentre first day, straight away. I couldn’t say ‘hello.’ I didn’t know English at all. How could they send me to find a job when I couldn’t speak at all? I couldn’t find a job. So, I worked as a cleaner,”
He feels like he is treated as a second-class human in the UK. “You know, I studied for seven years at university. I graduated. I’m an engineer of oil and gas extraction. I used to work in Syria as well. Everything was super, you know,” he said.
He complained about the lack of assistance from government to properly integrate refugees into society. He narrated the story of another refugee – a 19-year-old who flew to the UK with a fake passport, not finding any other means of travel. The teen was then imprisoned for a year because of it.
Now, he is out. But with no guidance from the government, no family, alone in this country with a criminal record, Cengo said he got involved with the “wrong crowd.” He now does drugs, and Cengo thinks he’ll probably become a criminal. “They think refugees are bad people? We are not bad. But we become bad if there’s no help.”
So, how is being a refugee in the UK better than being a refugee in Jordan? He said, “Here, there is safety.” Here, the basic standards of living are met. Here, there is hope for the future.
*Names changed for confidentiality.