Desperate Syrian refugees return to war zone

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, northern Jordan

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media captionThe BBC's Yolande Knell: "These are dark days for Syrians"

Syrians cry and hug each other as they say their farewells in northern Jordan. Children help their parents bundle small bags of luggage onto a waiting bus.

These refugees either cannot afford to go to Europe or do not want to. Instead, they are going on a different dangerous journey: returning home to a war zone.

"I've no relatives left here and no money," says a mother of three from Deraa, in southern Syria. "Everybody started going back. We're so tired."

"In Syria, I'll find people I know," she goes on. "I'll be among my own people. It will be OK. Whatever happens, happens."

One-way ticket

In recent months, the United Nations says it has seen a worrying rise in returnees.

In July, the average was 66 a day but in August the figure nearly doubled to 129. It has since remained over 100.

image source, EPA
image captionSome 86% of Syrians in Jordan are living below the poverty line there of $3.20 (£2) a day

There are some 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, mostly living in urban areas. Four years into a bloody civil war, they are dispossessed and increasingly desperate.

Those who want to leave Jordan for Syria must register for the bus at a departure area at the Zaatari refugee camp. Many first get counselling from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

"The first thing we tell them is that there's no safe place in Syria from a UNHCR perspective," says Omar, one of the protection officers. "The second is that you can't return back to Jordan at all. It's a one-way ticket."

Increasingly, Syrian refugees in Jordan are in dire financial straits. The UN says 86% now live below the Jordanian poverty line of 68 Jordanian dinars ($96; £63) a month.

The government does not allow most to work legally and no longer provides free medical care.

At the beginning of last month, 229,000 living outside refugee camps had their aid from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) totally cut due to a lack of international donations.

Families have had to make terrible choices.

'No choice'

One man from Homs has decided to stay with his ageing mother in Jordan while his wife will take their two small daughters - one a newborn - to join her parents in regime-held Damascus.

"It's a hard life here. My baby daughter is really sick and I can't afford her treatment. In Syria, it will be available," says Abu Ahmed.

image captionAlmost 4,000 refugees returned to Syria in August, double the number for the previous month

"We are splitting up because we have no choice. Some situations are stronger than we are, and my daughter is the priority. In the night she wakes up choking and I have no car to take her to hospital and no money for medicine."

His wife remembers the journey out of Syria as "torture". She follows news of the continuing fighting and is aware of the risks of going back.

"We're not happy to go but the situation here is very bad. It's very expensive. We get no food vouchers. We even have to buy our water," she says.

"[My husband] could work illegally for a few days a month but not the whole time."

'More dangerous'

Another Syrian family living in Irbid is also planning to divide up temporarily.

The father, Khaled will take his 19-year-old daughter, Ayat, back home to Deraa so she can finish secondary school and get to university. His wife is staying behind with their other children for a few months.

image captionKhaled says: "I'm scared, but you only die when your time is up."

Khaled was well-off in Syria but now his savings have run out. He has relied on relatives to pay for his rent, food and transport costing about 600 Jordanian dinars (£552; $847) a month.

He shows me a photograph of his large house in Deraa. His parents are there and have told him the situation is calm now.

"It has been terrible: shelling and barrel bombs almost every day. People dying," he says. "For the last 20 days there's been talk of a truce."

I ask if he is worried the situation could become more violent again. "Yes," he replies. "I can't deny I'm scared, but you only die when your time is up. We don't have a life here."

Videos from southern Syria show barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft.

image source, Reuters
image captionFree Syrian Army fighters are preparing for heavy bombardment by Russian military aircraft

The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) says it does not have the weapons it needs to protect people and that the recently-arrived Russian air power will only increase the bloodshed.

"We are expecting that the situation will be more complicated. The air strikes will be heavier, stronger, more accurate and will attack and kill lots of civilians," says Major Issam al-Reis, spokesman for the FSA Southern Front.

"We advise our refugees not to go back to Syria now because [it] will be more dangerous."

And yet more and more families are opting to go back to a conflict that shows no sign of ending, instead of facing hunger and hardship in Jordan.