Lives on hold: The Scots helping Syrians in a refugee camp

Zataari refugee camp in northern Jordan
Image caption Zataari refugee camp in northern Jordan

Brightly coloured murals adorn the walls of the 'Little Hands' nursery.

The classroom walls are concrete, the roof plastic tenting. Outside, a group of four- and five-year-olds are singing and dancing.

Ignore the dusty roads beyond the chicken wire fence and you could be in almost any kindergarten in the world.

But this is the Zataari camp in Jordan, where thousands of Syrians fleeing their homeland now live.

"Many of the children we are seeing here now were born in the camp. They've known no other existence," says Neil Mathers, the head of Save the Children in Scotland.

Image caption Neil Mathers, head of Save the Children in Scotland, says there are tens of thousands of children living in the camps

The charity runs three nurseries in Zataari, with 52% of the camp's children.

Mr Mathers says: "There are 40,000 children who need this kind of support in Zataari camp alone. Our kindergartens reach around 2,000 children so much more is needed to handle just the children in this camp."

Zataari refugee camp is one of the places the refugees to be granted admission to the UK will be selected from.

Image caption Syrian children in the Little Hands nursery in Zataari refugee camp

A few miles south of Jordan's border with Syria, the camp sprawls across 8 sq km (3 sq miles) of desolate stony desert.

It's grown from nothing to become effectively Jordan's fourth largest city. With a population of more than 80,000, it's the world's second largest refugee camp.

A mix of tents, tin shacks and ramshackle huts are what the refugees now call home.

In the summer, temperatures here top 50C and in winter, nights can drop to below freezing.

"It's tough," says Dominic Graham, Jordan country director for Edinburgh-based charity Mercy Corps. "Life in the camps is tough."

'No quick return'

Mercy Corps is just one of a score of non-governmental organisation's which have been working in Zataari since it was established four years ago when refugees first began fleeing Syria's increasingly brutal civil war.

Water, sanitation, shelter are all in place in Zataari. Rudimentary commerce has developed - there's a market and small shacks selling everyday items. Zataari is slowly developing an unwanted permanence. But it's a bleak existence. Lives on hold, going nowhere.

When the Syrian refugees first came most thought they would be going back to Syria very soon. They thought President Assad's regime was going to fall. The government and aid agencies thought so too. A crisis of months rather than years. No-one thinks that now.

Hassan arrived in Zaatari last year. Like many here, he doesn't want to give his full name for fear of consequences for relatives who have remained within Syria.

He and his family have no savings and now want to return to Syria. He said: "I will go back as soon as it is safe." But he doesn't think that will be soon.

Mr Graham, from Mercy Corps, says most of the refugees are desperate to get back to their former lives in Syria but "the prospects of that are getting thinner and thinner".

Zataari is just the tip of the refugee iceberg. Inside Syria, it's estimated there are nearly eight million internally displaced people. Those who escape to camps such as Zataari are those who are able to.

Some had geography on their side, living just over the border. Others made it here because they could afford to pay smugglers to help them cross the borders into Syria's neighbouring countries.

Those who are left inside are often the most vulnerable, the poorest. Getting aid to them is vital, according to Steve Gordon, from Glasgow, who is Mercy Corps' security manager for the region.

"If you are assisting inside Syria and people are staying there and not coming out, they are not becoming a burden on the surrounding countries."

The challenges are immense. Front lines are constantly shifting. Russia's intervention has altered the dynamics. Mercy Corps says it's seeing massive changes with populations shifting. Gordon says even as the situation becomes more dangerous the need to keep supplies flowing increases. "If an area is going to be cut off you have to pre-position supplies in those areas to sustain those communities through what could be very hard times."

In Zataari children play in the spray of water being hosed from a tanker to damp down the dusty streets of the camp. In the distance the hills of Syria are just visible through the haze. Whether these children will ever return to their homeland is impossible to know. But what the future holds is increasingly driving the thinking of the refugees here. Should they stay or should they go.

A battered silver bus waits near the camp's security checkpoint. It's destination is the Syrian border. For some, life in the refugee camps holds so little hope they are choosing to return. It's only a trickle, but memories of the dangers that drove people here fade.

For some Europe and the prospect of a new life there has become their goal. Individuals and small family groups make the arduous and dangerous journey. If they succeed and successfully settle in Germany, France or Britain perhaps the rest of the family can follow.

Billions of pounds are being spent trying to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. The UK alone has spent just over £1bn across the region, with £330m in Jordan alone, since the start of the war in Syria.

Jeff Tudor is head of the UK government's international development programme in Jordan. As a veteran of the humanitarian and development aid business, he knows there is no easy or quick answer to the refugee crisis.

He says: "We're hanging on in there, but ultimately we will need a political solution to what is happening in Syria. Even if we get a political solution tomorrow we are looking at at least a decade. The refugees won't go back overnight, the situation in Syria won't allow it."

More on this story