Reversing Direction, Some Syrian Refugees Now Head Home
In the Jordanian desert, the chaos begins at sundown, when the wind whips up the desert sand and the buses arrive. For the past two years, Syrian refugees have been streaming into Jordan, and they now number an estimated half million.
But for the past month, more refugees have returned to Syria than entered Jordan, and hundreds are leaving daily from Zaatari, the U.N.'s largest refugee camp in Jordan.
"Four buses are going every day," says Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari. "Depending on how many people manage to storm the buses, it's probably 300 to 400 people."
A heaving crowd of refugees surges forward to get a place on the buses. Men punch their way to the front, panicked children shriek as they are hoisted and pulled through the open windows along with blankets and luggage.
Jordanian soldiers in riot gear try to keep order in a crowd desperate to get back to Syria. More than 9,000 headed home in June, according to the official Jordanian count.
When the buses finally pull away toward the Syrian border, hundreds are left behind. They shout goodbyes to friends and family. Some collapse and weep at the side of the road.
A young mother, who wouldn't give her name, was seeing off her aunt and uncle. Her three young children are the only family she has left in Zaatari, the camp where more than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in tents and trailers.
"Life is very bad at Zaatari," she says. Another refugee has a plastic sack over his shoulder filled with everything he owns. He didn't get a place on the bus this day, but he vows to try again tomorrow.
"Everything here is awful when it comes to getting on the buses," he rants, refusing to give his name. "You only get on if you have some kind of influence; otherwise you just sit here and wait."
Recent Rebel Advances
This reverse exodus comes as Syrian rebels have made gains in southern Syria. The rebels have pushed back government troops around the city of Dera'a, a rare victory. The rebels farther north have been routed by the Syrian army.
Rebel commanders interviewed in Jordan confirm the number of returnees is rising.
"The more areas we liberate, the more they come back," said Mohammed al-Dehni, who commands a company of armed men in the south.
"The pressure is very high because people are anxious to either join the struggle or to look after their belongings, their properties," says Kleinschmidt, the U.N. official. But he does not advise refugees to return. Even with rebel gains, the fighting has intensified in Dera'a.
"Everybody will tell you about constant shelling," he says.
And yet the flow of refugees into Jordan has slowed substantially, and on some days, has stopped altogether. Syrian activists say this is because Jordan has closed a major crossing point.
The Jordanian government denies closing any part of the border, but Syrian rebels, who coordinate the refugee flows, say there is now a quota, enforced by Jordan's border police.
A video posted a few weeks ago from southern Syria shows thousands of Syrians, many of them children, stranded in an open field near the border.
A Huge Burden For Jordan
Jordan has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx. Officials complain bitterly that Jordan, a poor country of 6 million, is under enormous strain. The refugee camps are overcrowded and conditions are miserable, especially in the summer heat. Even more Syrian refugees live in Jordan's urban areas, which has put a strain on the economy and the country's diminishing water resources.
Jordan's sympathy for refugees is wearing out, says Ra'ed Akrad, a rebel from Dera'a.
"We are treated differently here, as if we are from outer space, like we are trying to take over the country," he says.
Akrad is being treated in a Jordanian rehabilitation hospital, where other injured rebels are learning to walk again. He's recovering from shrapnel wounds that sheared off his right leg.
His family came with him to Jordan when he was wounded, but returned to Dera'a last week. He says he will also return to Syria to a home that has been devastated by the fighting.
"The house was actually hit with a rocket and so three of the rooms are gone," he says. "One room remains with a bathroom and that's where the family is now staying."
Despite those like Akrad who are returning, the vast majority of refugees are staying put, settling in, and resigned to a long stay.
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Since the conflict in Syria began more than two years ago, Syrian refugees have been streaming into neighboring countries. An estimated half million have gone to Jordan. Last month, according to U.N. officials, some 9,000 of those refugees left overcrowded camps in Jordan. They returned to their homes in Southern Syria despite accounts of heavy fighting in the region. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The chaos begins at sundown when the desert wind whips up the sand and the buses arrive. The heaving crowd surges forward, men punch their way to the front, panicked children shriek as they're hoisted and pulled through the open windows along with blankets and luggage.
There are Jordanian riot police who are also watching this. There are women crying, standing inside the bus. Their families can't get to them, but everybody is pushing to try to get on that bus.
They are desperate to get back to Syria, fleeing a grim life in Jordan's refugee camps.
The riot police have now stepped in. They're standing at the front of the bus, at the door. The bus is completely packed. There's not enough room for everybody who is standing out here.
When the buses finally pull away, headed for the Syrian border, more than 400 get a place, but hundreds more are left behind. And they shout goodbye to family and friends. Some collapse and weep at the side of the road. This young mother, who wouldn't give her name, says all her family has gone back to Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Life is very bad at Zaatari, she says, naming the camp where more than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in tents and trailers. This refugee has everything he owns in a plastic sack. He didn't get a place on today's bus. He'll try again tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Zaatari here is hell. It's awful. Everything is just a bad situation.
AMOS: The reverse exodus comes as Syrian rebels have made gains in southern Syria, pushed back government troops around the city of Daraa. U.N. officials say about 10,000 refugees return each month. Kilian Kleinschmidt heads the U.N. office at Zaatari camp.
KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: The pressure is very high because people are anxious to either join the struggle or to look after their belongings, their properties.
AMOS: Is it safe for people to go back now to Daraa?
KLEINSCHMIDT: We don't think so. Everybody will tell you about constant shelling.
AMOS: But even as shelling has increased, the flow of refugees into Jordan has slowed substantially and, on some days, has stopped altogether. Activists say there is an obvious reason for the decline. They claim Jordan has closed a major crossing point. The Jordanian government denies that. But rebels say there are now quotas enforced by Jordan's border police.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: This video posted a few weeks ago shows Syrians, many of them children, stranded in an open field. The narrator says thousands are here. The border police won't let them in. Jordan has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx. Officials complained bitterly that Jordan, a poor country of six million, is under enormous strain. The refugee camps are overcrowded. Conditions are miserable, especially in the summer heat. Jordan's sympathy for refugees is wearing out, says this rebel from southern Syria.
RA'ED AKRAD: (Through Translator) We're treated differently here. We're treated as we have come from outer space, as if we're here to take over their country.
AMOS: Ra'ed Akrad is learning to walk again along with other rebels at this Jordanian rehab hospital. He's recovering from shrapnel wound that sheared off his right leg. His family went back to Daraa last week, and he vows he'll return to a home that's been devastated by the fighting.
AKRAD: (Through Translator) The house was actually hit with a rocket, and so three of the rooms are gone. One room remains with a bathroom, and that's where the family is now staying.
AMOS: More families are heading back to Syria than ever before. Life is dire in Jordan's camps, but conditions in Syria are often worse. So for now, the vast majority of refugees are staying put, half a million settling in, resigned to a long stay. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.