Conditions for Syrian refugees in the Middle East are so dire that some are now considering returning to their war-ravaged homeland rather than endure poverty, hunger and a futureless exile in the neighbouring nations where they are stranded, the UN has warned.
They also warn that the European anxieties over a new influx are misplaced as most refugees do not have the means to make the long and expensive journey.
The World Food Programme (WFP) – which has been forced to halve its assistance to almost 1.3 million vulnerable Syrian refugees in the region because of a $341m funding shortfall – said it feared some would try to go home as they now feel they have a better chance back in their own ruined country than sitting it out in Jordan or Lebanon.
“A few years ago, refugees arriving in Jordan and Lebanon would tell me that they were certain that they would go back in a few weeks or months,” said Dina El-Kassaby, a WFP spokeswoman.
“But the people here are telling us that they would go back to Syria – back to an active warzone. That must mean that they have really reached rock bottom to make that choice.”
El-Kassaby said that the latest food voucher cuts – which have left most refugees living on around 50 cents a day – were “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
She added: “It’s not like they got their food assistance cut and decided, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m leaving.’ This is several years of struggle and systematically finding, month-by-month, that forms of assistance are being cut off. And now the one that has lasted the longest – food assistance – is one that we just can’t keep up any longer unfortunately.”
Although most of the poorest and most vulnerable refugees living in camps around the region are still receiving full rations through the voucher scheme, those in host communities are struggling harder than ever before, said El-Kassaby.
“Almost all refugees report coping with the cuts by eating cheaper food and skipping meals, but many people are taking their children out of school and sending them to work,” she said.
“We are now seeing people begging at traffic lights in Amman. That’s not something we saw a few years ago. People are working for much lower wages than they should be because they need to get by.”
El-Kassaby said that with their savings and assets long since exhausted and tensions rising with host communities, refugees were facing a terrible choice.