Interview: “Urban refugees are struggling more and more to survive”

Interview: “Urban refugees are struggling more and more to survive”

Half a million Syrian refugees living in urban areas in Jordan are struggling more than ever to cope with inadequate housing, high debts, rising costs of living and educational challenges for their children, CARE International has found in a new study.

Beatrix Bücher, who led CARE’s new assessment on the situation of urban refugees, talks about the biggest needs of refugees, the situation of women and children and refugees’ relationship with Jordanian host communities.

Q. What is the biggest concern of Syrian refugees living in urban areas in Jordan right now and how has the situation of refugees changed?


A. More than three years after the Syria crisis started, refugee families are becoming more and more destitute. The longer they live in neighbouring countries like Jordan, the more they are struggling to survive. Families have fled months or years ago, they do not have any savings anymore. More than 80 percent of the refugees in Jordan do not live in one of the big camps like Zaatari, but in poor neighbourhoods in cities. Often they have to share tiny, run-down flats, old factory buildings or even farms with more than 20 people, some of them strangers.

Families have to spend an average of USD 260 per month for rent. For refugees, being able to pay for rent is one of the major concerns. A lot of the refugees sold most of their belongings; women told us that they sold their wedding ring or even their clothes to cover for urgent needs. 90 percent of the refugees we interviewed owe debts to relatives, landlords, shopkeepers and neighbours. Last year, they owed around 225 Jordanian Dinars to others, this year it’s already more than 600. Refugees live in constant fear of not having a roof over their head – either because they cannot pay the rent or because their contracts are only short term and they might have to move out, if another tenant is willing to pay a higher price.


Q. How do refugees cover for their basic needs like food?


A. About 97 percent of Syrian refugee families are registered with UNCHR and 89 percent receive food support through the World Food Program. Food vouchers help refugees cover their most basic food needs, but specific groups, especially small children and people with specific dietary needs do not always have access to the right quantity, quality and type of food. For instance, one woman reported to the team that when she first arrived to Jordan her twins were only 15 days old. She could not breastfeed them. Since she could not afford to buy baby milk formula, she fed them lentil soup, which of course was not healthy for them. They fell sick and the mother had to take them to the doctor, and pay for the treatment.


Q. How do refugees access health care?


A. UNCHR registration also gives refugees access to basic health care through the Jordanian public health system. The Jordanian Government and the international community have invested considerable resources and efforts into expanding public health services to accommodate the needs of Syrian refugees. A lot of the families have members with war injuries, chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes. Some have been sick before, others – especially children – have fallen sick because of the unhealthy housing conditions. They live in cold, damp flats without heating in the winter and mould on the walls.

However, some Syrian families told our team that they cannot always find the treatment or medication they need at public centers. Therefore, some of the problems Syrian refugees have in accessing medical services may be related to lack of information about where to find appropriate treatment. Also, for some specific cases such as different forms of cancer, the services are indeed not available at public centers.  When refugees are waiting for the renewal of their UNHCR registration – which can sometimes take up to four months – they also have to turn to private centers and cover medical expenses themselves


Q. What is the situation of children and women?


A. More than three quarter of the refugees in Jordan are women and children. Syrian women are particularly vulnerable as many of them have fled without their husbands who are either still in Syria or have been killed. They have to take care of their young children and older relatives, but with no source of income. CARE’s assessment shows that especially the needs of women with small children and adults with specific dietary requirements are not met. A lot of times they see no other choice but to send their children to work, especially teenage sons become the family’s breadwinner to make ends meet. Being pulled into the workforce usually means being pulled out of school.

More than 40 percent of Syrian refugee children are not going to school. This is an improvement to CARE’s findings in last year’s urban assessments, where 60 percent of the children were not enrolled in school. But this number is still too high. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian school-aged children have lost up to three years of education. Getting back to school in Jordan is often challenging for them, but they need to have a chance to continue their education so they can contribute to re-building Syrian society and economy when they can go back. Going to school will also help Syrian children to better adapt to life during displacement and give them a sense of “normalcy” after all they have experience in Syria and when fleeing the country.

The insecurity to provide for their families also causes increasing levels of stress for both men and women, and sets women at risk of sexual exploitation. Some girls and young women have to accept marriage proposals, in order to gain economic security for themselves. We are losing an entire generation of children, the most critical investment for Syria’s future.


Q. Refugees do not only have to cope with finding safe shelter, paying for food and medication.  A lot of them are also have experienced violence themselves and are now living under very stressful conditions, often sharing accommodation with strangers, and worried every day about how they will make ends meet . How do they emotionally deal with memories of war and the experience of flight and life in displacement?


A. CARE found that the social and psychological impact of war on families is increasingly worrying. Refugees do not only need a place to stay, enough food, water and medical treatment. They also need psychosocial support. Especially refugees who have been displaced for years and have no more assets worry about how they can cover their monthly expenses and deal with medical emergencies. In household interviews and group discussions, refugees who have been displaced for a long time, said they need help to cope with the experience of conflict, flight and displacement. Almost 60 percent of the families we interviewed said that their situation has deteriorated from last year and that they are very concerned about their psychosocial wellbeing. This was mentioned even more often than worries about their financial situation, however, the two are of course very interlinked.


Q. In Jordan, the population has increased by more than 10 percent due to the influx of refugees. Doesn’t this cause tensions between Syrians and the local Jordanian community?


A. It’s undeniable that the influx of Syrian refugees increasingly impacts Jordanian host communities. They are battling with the same challenges – increased accommodation and living costs, and access to outstretched public services, in particular health and education services. 20 percent of the interviewed Jordanian families said that they struggle to meet their food needs. We have heard of some cases where Syrian refugees were verbally harassed, especially children in school.

However, Jordanian participants in group discussions made a very clear distinction between the difficult situation of Syrian refugees, and the impact the refugee crisis has on the situation of poor Jordanian families.

About 30 percent of Syrian refugees report that they are receiving a lot of support from their Jordanian neighbours, and that these good community relations give them a sense of “home”. Some say that their neighbours gave them some furniture, a warm meal or that they supported them at least with friendliness and a smile. It is these examples of community support that actors involved in the response should build on, and enhance to increase the understanding of Syrian and Jordanian families have of each others’ needs, and to prevent that they feel they are competing over resources and access to services.



Beatrix Bücher led CARE’s new assessment on the situation of urban refugees in Jordan.