News / Middle East

Syrian Refugees Seek Dangerous New Routes to Safety in Jordan

Refugees who have crossed over Jordan's eastern desert border are rescued by Jordan's border forces--as many as 200-500 refugees each night.
Refugees who have crossed over Jordan's eastern desert border are rescued by Jordan's border forces--as many as 200-500 refugees each night.
Cecily Hilleary
Syrian refugees have been pouring into Jordan since 2011, most of them from southern cities of Daraa or Damascus. But U.N. officials say the latest waves of Syrian refugees are coming much further way.

And Andrew Harper, coordinator for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), says this is a sign that is deeply distressing.

“We are getting hundreds of refugees coming in new routes, like from Homs and Hama, which we have never seen before, under extremely difficult circumstances,” Harper said.

To avoid the ongoing violence in Damascus and other southwestern cities, the refugees have been traveling southeast toward the Jordan’s eastern border with Iraq. There, they park their cars and cross over the border by foot into Jordan. 

We know that we are going to be continuing to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming towards Jordan...We need to be building more camps. But we don’t have the money.
At this time of year, crossing is still comfortable during the day, though that will change as the summer approaches.  At night, the refugees have only the stars to guide them. There is little water in this part of Jordan; it has to be trucked in.  There is no electricity either.

“And so to identify to the refugees when they are crossing at night where Jordan is, the armed forces are flashing their patrol lights through the darkness to the refugees, signaling that this is the way they have to come,” Harper said. “It’s almost like setting up a lighthouse beacon.”

Six, seven even eight hours later, the lucky ones are rescued by Jordanian border patrols. But they still have a long way to go before they reach the Zaatari refugee camp at Al Mafraq.
UN map of Syria showing routes into JordanUN map of Syria showing routes into Jordan
UN map of Syria showing routes into Jordan
UN map of Syria showing routes into Jordan

“The border guards don’t have the funds to put enough petrol in the vehicles to keep these vehicles doing the round trips to the camp and back,” Harper said.  “They don’t have four-wheel-drive buses, and the poor Jordanian armed forces only have two trucks in one post, three trucks in another post, and we’re trying to figure out, ‘How the hell do we get ready to receive thousands more people coming through this route?’”

Families, often unaccompanied women and children, are loaded into the backs of trucks to begin another trek, as long as 400 kilometers. 
“So you have children who have already suffered, coming across in the night in the desert, in the dust, who are then having to be put into these trucks for nine hours to get to safety, and these trucks are sort of just plowing through sand and dust, billowing around, trying to survive,” Harper said. 

Once the Jordanian patrols have dropped the refugees off at Zaatari, they turn around and head back to the eastern border to rescue still more refugees — some of them injured, most of them exhausted and frightened. There are hundreds a day and their numbers are growing.

“We know that we are going to be continuing to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming towards Jordan,” says Harper, “And we need to ensure that we’ve got the necessary resources to be able to put in place an infrastructure. We need to be building more camps.  But we don’t have the money.”

  • A Jordanian soldier helping a young Syrian refugee put back up a tent blown down by the relentless wind. The UNHCR calls Jordan the "model host."
  • Jordan desert, near the far eastern border with Iraq
  • It takes refugees as many as 2-5 days after crossing Jordan's eastern border before they can be moved to the Zaatari camp, in northwestern Jordan. Jordanian Armed Forces cover all costs.
  • Syrian refugees in eastern Jordan's desert walking the plank into safety.
  • Most of the refugees coming into Jordan from the east are children. These have just been loaded on a Jordanian Border Patrol truck to be moved to safety.
  • Rasha, age 8, fled Homs in her pajamas after her house was shelled. She travelled for 12 days to reach the Jordan border.
  • 6 year-old Nisreen starting her 450 km trip to her new home as a refugee from the remote eastern Jordan-Syria border.
  • Sunset at a remote refugee reception area close to the Syria-Jordan-Iraq borders. Access is only by four-wheel drive vehicles--in good condition.
  • Of the estimated 450,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, more than 360,000 are registered or waiting registration with UNHCR, Amman.
  • 101 year-old Atfa, a Syrian refugee who passed away in the Zaatri refugee camp in Jordan. He had fled Syria only ten days earlier.

Zaatari hosts about 100,000 refugees today, but any more and it could become unmanageable. For now, says Harper, there are enough tents, food, water and health care.  There have been no serious outbreaks of disease, but that could change at any time.

Harper praises Jordan as a perfect and generous host to refugees.

“It has hosted a couple of million Palestinians. It has hosted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," he says. "It’s now being inundated by Syrians.”

Jordan has allocated land for another refugee camp, assuming there will someday be funds to build it. But any additional refugee camps will need more water, which already is in short supply. Jordan has also been allowing Syrians to access the health system, the education system. But sadly, says Harper, that isn’t enough.

It’s up to the international community, he says, to turn “magnificent gestures of solidarity towards refugees” into something more practical.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Bill Frelick from: Washington, DC
March 29, 2013 10:11 AM
While Jordan does, indeed, deserve credit for welcoming hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, UNHCR's Andrew Harper goes too far in saying Jordan is a "perfect" refugee host. Jordan has a policy of rejecting Palestinian refugees from Syria who seek asylum at its border. These Palestinians are fleeing conditions and threats that are just as life-threatening as those faced by the Syrian refugees who Jordan accepts. Please see Human Rights Watch's report on this aspect of the crisis

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs