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Children play outside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Jan. 24, 2014. (Campbell Clark/The Globe and Mail)
Children play outside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Jan. 24, 2014. (Campbell Clark/The Globe and Mail)

Harper offers new aid in Jordan, but sees no end to flow of Syrian refugees Add to ...

The flow of refugees into the Zaatari camp has slowed to 300 people a night, but they are thinner now and coming from farther away. They come from Homs and Damascus, pay to be driven close and then walk in the night to the border. Even now, the camp still ranks as Jordan’s fourth-biggest city, with 2,500 corrugated-metal shops set up by the Syrian refugees, and 90,000 refugees, half of them children, in eight square kilometres.

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This camp, where residents can still hear the artillery blasts from across the Syrian border only 12 kilometres away, is where Prime Minister Stephen Harper came Friday to offer Canadian assistance for the plight of Syrian refugees, but he could offer little hope for a quick return to their homes. Mr. Harper announced $150-million in aid for Syrian refugees, but warned he sees little that the world – or Canada – can do to stop the flow of refugees or influence the course of Syria’s brutal civil war.

“We talk in terms of hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of displaced persons. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these are all individual lives. You know, we are touched by this,” Mr. Harper said. “This is the reason we try to provide food and shelter and sanitation and education and security, to do what we can. Obviously, unfortunately, it appears that this is going to, if anything, get worse or continue. So our commitment must be for the long term.”

In addition to the roughly $200-million Canada has already committed to aid refugees and the countries that are hosting them, Mr. Harper pledged an additional $150-million for Syrian refugees – including $100-million for basic needs like food and shelter, and $50-million for a UNICEF education and child-protection program.

But outside the World Food Programme where Mr. Harper made his announcement, some residents of the camp’s main street (dubbed the Champs Elysées) said they want western countries to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the countries they blame for backing him, like Russia, Iran and China, so the refugees can go home. “As soon as possible, when the western countries control Russia, [we] will be able to go back,” one man said through an interpreter.

But Mr. Harper isn’t fuelling that hope. Canada wants the Assad regime to go, but he sees “extreme and brutal elements” on both sides.

“The brutal reality of the world is that we do not control the actions of others. And sometimes the actions of others impose realities on others that we have to deal with,” he said. “So given our limited ability to affect the course of the conflict, the best we can do, and really all Canada is doing in terms of our aid – we are not supporting the conflict on either side, we are supporting help for people. And that’s what we will continue to do.

The Prime Minister, surrounded by heavy security, didn’t stop to talk to refugees in the camp – once famed for crime and violence – but was driven through Zaatari’s busy, dusty main street, and taken to a World Food Programme distribution compound, to get a briefing from the director of the camp, Kilian Kleinschmidt, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

The figures are staggering: almost 400,000 refugees have come through Zaatari camp alone, mostly from Dar’a, the rural region across the border where the uprising against the Assad regime began. About 50,000 have been sponsored by Jordanians, 50,000 have dared to return to Syria, and many more have slipped out, into ballooning northern towns like Mafraq.

Half of Zaatari’s population are school-age children, Mr. Kleinschmidt told reporters, and 55 per cent of the families are led by women, because so many of the men did not leave war-torn Syria because they’re either “in action or missing in action,” Mr. Kleinschmidt said. The camp teems with children, playing in packs, pushing wheelbarrows to deliver or trade goods, and sifting the rocky ground for sand to make cement.

And they are still coming. The camp’s arrival centre, taking in the last of the night’s border-crossers, holds mostly groups of women, with children, and a crying baby. Ali, a 28-year-old from Homs, arrived Friday morning with his wife, his brother, an aunt and uncle, as well his three-year-old daughter, Fidaa, and niece, Safia, 5, who stood silently beside him.

“A few days ago, I decided that the time is now to move to Jordan, because there is not any hope to make things okay,” Ali told reporters through an interpreter.

Ali, who worked in a clothing factory before it was destroyed, made the 16-hour journey from Homs, his family paying about $125 per person, before being let off to walk in the night to the border where they were picked up by the Jordanian army.

Ali, who wore a leather jacket and a red-and-white kaffiya headscarf, asked to withhold his last name, and not have his picture taken, out of fear for his parents still in Syria and his own security if he ever returns. But he doesn’t think that’s any time soon: if the Syrian army catches him, they will kill his whole family, he said.

Still not yet really inside the camp, with his family’s possessions, mostly clothes, in a heap on the floor, he said he believes their lives will be better now: there will be no shooting, and they will be safe.

It is, according to UNHCR officials, a safe camp now. Once rife with crime like prostitution, violence against aid workers, and demonstrations, the camp has settled. Residents realize they will be there longer, there are efforts to have more input from the residents and to restore people’s dignity; food vouchers, soon to be replaced by credit-card vouchers, can be used to get food at two supermarkets.

Security, provided by the Jordanian police, has improved heavily from an overwhelmed force a year ago, with improvements heavily funded by Canada, which built the local police station and provided vehicles, said the UNHCR’s camp security director, Patrick Hanson, a former soldier and a Saskatchewan native. Now, Mr. Kleinschmidt said, the gangs and crime have been isolated.

But with Syria’s civil war still raging, there is planning for the long-term: a new camp with a capacity of 131,000, at Azraq, is almost ready, waiting for more refugees.

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