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The Globe and Mail

As Syria’s war drags on we’re forgetting how to help

"Dar." Home. It is a word heard frequently around the littered, hastily constructed housing blocks of Mafraq, Jordan, along the Syrian border, where the number of refugees has just surpassed the number of locals. Everyone is feeling it – rents have skyrocketed, poverty and unemployment are high, schools now operate in two shifts, and tensions are escalating.

Local Jordanians blame the Syrians for their new crime problem, draining their resources, increasing the cost of goods in corner stores, driving down wages, and exposing their youth to "shameful practices," such as early marriage. The Syrians, already traumatized by a brutal war, accuse the Jordanians of harassment, of bullying their children to the point where many drop out of school, and systematic discrimination.

As the Syrian war soon enters its fourth year and the peace talks produce only more angry rhetoric and a murderous stalemate, the grim reality that these Syrian guests aren't leaving any time soon is beginning to sink in. Jordanians have found themselves in similar situations before, hosting Iraqi and Palestinian refugees for decades in their small and, at times, politically precarious, country.

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These days, just about the only thing locals agree on is that the Syrians wish they could go home, and the Jordanians wish they could too, "before they get too comfortable." There's little chance of that happening, because Syrian refugees are anything but comfortable. They are not legally allowed to work in Jordan without expensive permits and affidavits from employers, so they accept off-the-books scraps that involve long hours of hard labour for a fraction of what it would cost to hire a Jordanian. Dangerous conditions and abusive employers are never reported, because if desperate Syrians are discovered working they can be fined or even arrested. To avoid this, many families send their children out to do menial jobs instead for a few dinars a day. Parents say they feel helpless and hopeless, dependent as they are on hand-outs from relatives and aid agencies while their assets lie under mortared rubble.

In Mafraq, Syrians living out in the community, sleeping fifteen to a bedroom in houses that lack plumbing and heating, call themselves the lucky ones. The unlucky ones reside in a local camp, Zaatari, which at 80,000 plus residents is the second largest refugee camp in the world.

Zaatari is dominated by Syrians from the Daraa region, where the standoff with Bashar al Assad began. Outsider and minority groups say they feel too threatened to stay there. It is easy to see why. Security in the camp is an ongoing problem. During my recent visit, a violent skirmish delayed our entrance to the camp for hours as police attempted to settle the dispute. Not surprisingly, the number of camp residents is in decline. At its peak, Zaatari housed more than 130,000 Syrian refugees. Those leaving are moving in with friends and distant relatives elsewhere in Jordan. A few are believed to be crossing back into Syria to tend to vulnerable loved ones or to check on what remains of their towns and villages.

Canada has contributed $203-million to the Syria Crisis, according to the most recent analysis by Oxfam, and has pledged $353.5 million. That, according to Oxfam's analysis, is significantly more than our "fair share." As an important donor, we now have a unique opportunity to lead. This is a deep, protracted crisis and the scale of suffering is enormous. And much like Russia's arms shipments to Mr. Assad, it shows no signs of abating. But there is abundant evidence that the needs of refugees are changing, and the international response must now evolve along with them.

As the humanitarian priorities for refugees shift from emergency to long-term needs, and a war-weary population moves out of the camps, their transition can be facilitated by strengthening local, community-based organizations. In Jordan, there exists an impressive network of locally-run agencies that would greatly benefit from international training and funding, and their legitimacy within communities could be leveraged to reduce the stigma that Syrian refugees currently face. Ensuring that impoverished Jordanian families also have access to these opportunities is vital to restoring relations between the refugee and host communities. Canada is doing some of this work already, but could help to nudge other donors in the same direction. At the same time, some gentle diplomacy with the Jordanian government to loosen restrictions for out-of-work Syrians would have a double benefit: fewer Syrians would be dependent on aid, and employers would no longer be able to undermine Jordanians with cheap and illegal workers.

It is inevitable that international interest in Syria will wane the more this war drags on. And after the abject failure of Geneva 2, the end is likely a long way off yet. On top of this, there are already convincing signs that donor fatigue has begun: budgets are tightening and funding announcements are slowing down. Every aid agency I spoke with in Jordan is anticipating a drop in international contributions before the end of this year. And yet, with 2.5 million Syrian refugees trapped in the region, there is still much to do.

Samantha Nutt is an author, medical doctor and a Founder of the international aid group War Child. She recently returned from the Syrian border.

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