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Children Among Syria's Most Vulnerable Refugees


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour asking you to think about this startling fact: Every day, some 3,000 Syrian refugees are fleeing across the border into Jordan. It's a huge increase from just a few weeks ago. It means the tide of refugees from Syria has become a flood. Hundreds of thousands are making their way through rain and snow, seeking safety in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The government of Jordan says it is stretched to the limit.

I spoke earlier today with Andrew Harper, head of the U.N.'s refugee agency in Jordan, about the growing number of Syrians pouring into the country.

ANDREW HARPER: What we're seeing, at the moment, is trending upwards. About two weeks ago, it was about 700 to 800 per day, Then it went to 2,000; then about 3,000. And the issue is, we just do not know where this is going to end up at.

BLOCK: They're going to one huge refugee camp - the Zaatari camp. What's the total number of refugees in that camp now?

HARPER: It's probably getting close to about 70,000 because we're just receiving so many people per day. It's impossible to sort of say, oh, this is the exact number. But what we had originally planned for is about 60,000. We're now having to revise it up to 90,000. And we're having to move forward very quickly on establishing a second camp, and then probably a third and a fourth camp.

BLOCK: The 70,000 people at this camp - the vast majority of them, I think, are in tents, right? They're not winterized.

HARPER: Yeah, that's correct. The vast majority are in tents. Also, the vast majority are children; probably 60 percent of those people coming across the border every night are children. And the remaining are often elderly, the sick, or single women. So you start getting an idea of the challenge that we've got. When you've got 70,000 basically vulnerable people in a refugee camp, which was set up in the desert, and the enormous amount of support and assistance that we need to put into that - 20 percent of the entire population in the camp is less than 4 years old. This makes an enormous challenge for us - keeping them alive, making sure they're protected, and ensuring that they're well until they can actually return back to Syria.

BLOCK: And give us a sense of scale, in terms of the supplies that you have to keep them fed and clothed and hopefully, warm.

HARPER: You know, anything less than 10,000 pieces of anything is really not even worth talking about. We had eight semi-trailers arriving today with tents. Every day, we've got 4,000 mattresses being made, and transported to the camp. We've probably got about a hundred trucks taking sewage out of the camp every day. We're putting in about a million and a half liters of water into the camp every day.

And this is just into the camp. People often forget, also, that there's probably about 250,000 Syrians who are in the urban environment, who are often forgotten. So it's a challenge trying to maintain a holistic approach to the refugee crisis that currently exists in Jordan, while also looking across the border into Southern Syria. And it's the same - oh, we've got to be prepared for 100-, 200-, 300,000 more coming across because there is less and less reason for this population to stay there.

BLOCK: What are the refugees saying about the most recent violence that's happened in Syria, that's caused them to flee in these ever-greater numbers?

HARPER: The security situation is deteriorating on the other side. There's more and more villages which are being bombarded. In many cases, people have lost hope in seeing any sort of resolution to the conflict there. That, combined with a decrease in access to health care, schools being closed, food becoming unaffordable, decreased access to fuel - they're just sort of saying, like, what else do we do? How do we protect our families; how do we keep our families alive and well?

And then people making the choice that it's better to become a refugee - no matter how difficult that is - than staying in Southern Syria. And that's why we are seeing tens of thousands of people leaving Syria, at the moment. And I'm afraid that no one can give me any positive indicators in relation to the situation in Syria, which would lead me to believe that this flow is not going to become, as you said, a flood.

BLOCK: I wonder, Mr. Harper - among those tens of thousands of Syrian refugees whom you've been dealing with, if there's one family, or one story, that really sticks with you, more than any other.

HARPER: I'd like to sort of say there's one, but there's not one. Every family that comes across is unique. They've suffered so much. There was a small child that came across - 3 years old - last night. She had lost her mother and her father, and had just been sort of evacuated by her neighbor. And she - what does she - having brought up with? Like, she's got nothing for her.

BLOCK: Andrew Harper - he's with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan. Mr. Harper, thank you.

HARPER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.