Refugee Camps Empty as Syrians Head for Europe

5 minute read

In early 2012, it was an anonymous patch of desert in the north of Jordan but by the end of 2013, it was a city of 156,000 Syrian refugees, the fourth biggest population center in the country.

Now it has shrunk to almost one third of its former size as Syrians desperate for a better future migrate to other parts of the Middle East or attempt the dangerous journey to Europe.

For those who made a successful business amid the despair, depopulation has hit them hard. Shadi Arour, a refugee from the southern Syrian city of Daraa says his business, which sells candies, nuts and cigarettes, has fallen by 75% in the last two years. “Before there was movement, people, now we stop during the week, people only buy tea and cigarettes, and the only traffic is on Fridays. Almost one out of two shops has closed,” he says.

Arour’s stall is in the camp’s main thoroughfare, nicknamed the Champs-Elysées after a glamorous avenue in Paris, where camp residents could buy anything from food to televisions and bridal gowns.

Now the main activity is by the camp’s security center, where hundreds queue to collect permits issued by Jordan’s Interior Ministry to leave the camp. The permits allow Jordan to monitor the number of refugees and allocate food and services in conjunction with international agencies.

Some 630,000 Syrians have registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency in Jordan since 2011, though Amman says the actual number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is around 1.4 million. Official figures estimate some 79,000 live in Zaatari today, though some think the number could be closer to 50,000.

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

The richer refugees plan to fly to Turkey from Amman where they will try to make the sea crossing with people smugglers from Turkey to the Greek islands. Others join a daily fleet of Jordanian military, which transport them six miles to the Nasib border crossing on the Syria Jordan border. From there, they will either return to their homes in Syria or make their way to Turkey by land, risking conflict and armed bands on the way.

Andrew Harper, the representative of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan said that in July, 60 Syrians a day were leaving the camp but that has reached 300 in recent weeks.

Omar Nweran, a music teacher from Daraa has lived in Zaatari since the early days of 2012, says he has seen more than 100 people he knows leave with their families. “I’m not leaving, because I have a mission here to meet with the children and teach them music, but not many are like me nowadays,” he says.

The smaller numbers of refugees has improved conditions for those that remain. “Certainly there are less, it’s much more manageable now. We’re putting in better infrastructure, but it takes time and money,” Harper says. “In the end we can keep people alive but it has to be much more than that. They need dignity, and that’s something more refugees are finding increasingly difficult to have here.”

Electricity in the camp is intermittent and residents wait for the supply to re-start so they can watch the news bulletins in which they have seen their compatriots crossing the sea and traveling through Europe.

That’s how most people learned about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open her country’s borders to unregistered refugees.

“My goal is Germany. I am checking the news and saw what happened in Hungary at the border but I am not afraid of it or any changing policy,” Jamal Al Hamier, a Zaatari resident from Syria’s southern city of Daraa, says ahead of his trip.

The 27-year-old holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, and after spending three years doing odd jobs like the one he has now filling water tanks, he said the camp just doesn’t cut it.

“I have friends who were already living in Germany and they said the future is possible and bright there,” he says. “People have been talking about this since June, then Merkel said she would host Syrians, and I know that after September the sea becomes dangerous but I don’t care, I want to go.”

For those without the funds for the Europe trip, war-torn Syria still presents a better option than the camp. Just outside the security center, Ahmed Al Kharas, a Syrian in his 30s slouched on a pile of luggage and smoked a cigarette. He would cross the Jordanian border by bus the next day, alone.
“I am going back to reach my brothers in Daraa, regardless of the war and the barrel bombs” he says. “Once in Syria I will think of a plan, because here there is no future.”

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