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The Urban Refugees Behind the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Clara Long, Media and Communications Officer, International Medical Corps

The Syrian war, now in its tenth year, has forced more than 5.6 million people to flee the country, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. But at the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis lies a group whose voice is rarely heard and story seldom told. Of the total number of Syrian refugees, 94.8% — an overwhelming majority — do not live in camps.

In this sense, cities — and the areas surrounding them — are the refugee camps of the 21st century. But despite this, the word ‘refugee’ still conjures stereotypical images of how refugees live.

Jordan hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees; 81% of whom live in and around cities such as Amman, Irbid, Zarqa and Mafraq. While this should allow for a more autonomous life, the opportunity to become self-reliant and to contribute to local economies, jobs are often hard to come by — leaving refugees vulnerable to poverty, exploitation and harsh working conditions. Indeed, a staggering 93% of refugees in Jordan live on or below the poverty line.

More often than not, refugees are left to find housing on an open market, forcing many families into debt, simply to have a roof over their heads. Women and girls are often hit the hardest. Many households are headed by women, particularly in regions close to the Syrian border, such as Al-Mafraq, where refugees with limited means to continue their journey have settled.

Another consequence of the Syrian refugee crisis is child marriage. The number of child brides among Syrian refugees living in Jordan has increased from 15% in 2015 to 36% in 2018. The increase is, in part, attributed to poverty. Lacking the means to support their children, families marry off their girls in a desperate attempt to make ends meet. These girls rarely have access to education, which paves the way for a life in poverty, with little opportunity to reach their true potential or voice their rights.

Mafraq isn’t just home to many urban refugees — it’s also where Zaatari Refugee Camp is located, where this photo was taken. The camp was established in 2012, not long after the conflict erupted, and is the biggest Syrian refugee camp in the world.

Nine years of conflict in Syria has blurred the line between urban- and camp-living refugees in Jordan. Although an official UNHCR camp, Zaatari has grown into a permanent settlement, home to more than 70,000 refugees.

Jordan has a long history of welcoming refugees: more than 2.2 million Palestinian refugees have sought safety in Jordan since 1948. This photo of two boys playing was taken in Baqa’a, a Palestinian refugee settlement established in 1968.

Refugees must make the most out of meagre means — here, plants are grown at the home of a Syrian refugee family living in Baqa’a. Today, the camp has morphed into a permanent settlement, with features more akin to a city than a refugee camp, such as buildings, shops and markets.

International Medical Corps, an NGO working to improve living conditions of urban refugees living in Jordan, conducts a needs assessment with a Syrian refugee family living in Baqa’a. Initially, a safe haven for Palestinian refugees, a number of Syrian refugees also live in the town today. Aisha*, the mother, is explaining that her son needs to see a specialist doctor.

A photo overlooking the Jordan Valley, where some urban Syrian refugees have settled in hope of finding work. The valley is the main region for Jordan’s agriculture industry. The West Bank can be seen in the background.


This is the kitchen of 14-year-old Abeer*, a Syrian refugee who is already married and expecting her second child. Her husband is blind and unable to work.

Another photo from Abeer’s kitchen. With little to spare, Syrian refugees living in Jordan often demonstrate remarkable hospitality. A home visit is almost always accompanied by tea or coffee — Turkish or Arabic — as well as something sweet.

Abeer and her daughter Nour*. Winters get cold in Jordan — and Abeer’s home has no heating. During this meeting, Abeer and a group of NGO workers worked on a plan to secure heating for the house. Only 14, Abeer remains adamant that she wants to work to support her family — she doesn’t want to rely on the charity of others.

Abeer’s case manager outside Abeer’s home in December 2019. Cash-based assistance from NGOs like International Medical Corps enable refugees like Abeer to get help specially tailored to their needs, such as heating or medication.

A group of Syrian refugee girls giggle at a joke during an after-school activity for older children in Al-Mafraq, Jordan. The centre offers after-school activities to Syrian refugee children living in urban areas as well as to vulnerable Jordanians.

Sunset over the Jordan Valley. As recently demonstrated by the relentless violence in Idlib, the crisis — despite more than nine years of unabated conflict — isn’t over for the Syrian people. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees living in and around cities in Jordan continue to rebuild with little hope of returning to the country they once called their home.

International Medical Corps can support refugees living in and around cities in Jordan with child protection and mental health assistance thanks to generous support from UK Aid. 

*Names of refugees have been changed to protect their identity

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