ZA'ATRI, Jordan, September 11 (UNHCR) – UNHCR chief António Guterres and Special Envoy Angelina Jolie have heard harrowing tales of suffering and cross-border escape during meetings with Syrian refugees in northern Jordan.
Guterres and Jolie on Tuesday both visited Za'atri, a camp holding almost 30,000 people in very difficult conditions. Jolie, on Monday night, also met a group of around 200 traumatized refugees – including many children – just after they crossed the border, some with injuries and many telling of loss and brutality.
Both the High Commissioner and Jolie praised Jordan for keeping its border open and providing sanctuary for fleeing Syrians – more than 80,000 have registered as refugees or applied to register, out of above 250,000 for the region – and they called on the international community to do more to improve life for the refugees in Za'atri.
"Jordan continues to keep its borders open and to save lives. Considering the severe water shortages and the economic strain it is under, Jordan's contribution is extraordinary," said Jolie. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, accompanying the visitors, vowed that "until security and safety returns, we will keep our borders open and share with them [the refugees] what we have."
The High Commissioner, meanwhile, met in Za'atri with a newly arrived family who were visibly traumatized. The elderly matriarch, sobbing, told him, "My house was burned, my son and four nephews were killed . . . put up against a wall and sprayed with bullets."
Jolie told journalists in Za'atri about the refugees in a desperate condition that she had met while accompanying Jordanian troops at the border on Monday night. Shelling could be heard from inside Syria as some 200 refugees made the dangerous crossing, including a badly beaten man with his nine-year-old daughter. The man said he had escaped before he could be executed.
Jolie said that during more than a decade of working with UNHCR she had met many people in camps, while adding that "rarely do you meet them as they cross the border, the moment they become a refugee, the moment they have lost their home, their schooling, their livelihood, everything they had."
She said it was particularly difficult listening to children describe the horrific things they had seen or experienced before reaching the safety of Jordan, which has provided haven to hundreds of thousands of refugees in recent years. "They described body parts, separated, burnt people being pulled apart."
Jolie also met and spoke to refugees, including unaccompanied minors, during her visit with Guterres to Za'atri camp, which opened in late July and is located close to the Syria border. While the camp is home to almost 30,000 people, most of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are staying with host communities in urban areas.
The Special Envoy recounted a moving meeting with a heavily pregnant woman who told Jolie about her traumatic border crossing. The woman was very emotional about the loss of her home and family members.
UNHCR staff said the refugees say artillery and air attacks are continuing in villages and towns close to the Jordanian border. There are reports of thousands of displaced people in Syria's south, moving from village to village seeking safety before they can cross the border.
The number of refugees crossing the border tends to fluctuate daily according to the security situation inside Syria. Overall, the average remains around 2,000 new arrivals a day, but some days have seen less than 1,000 people crossing due to the poor security situation across the border.
Refugees say violence is affecting a number of sites in Damascus where displaced people have been sheltering, forcing them to move again. Some refugees report being displaced five or six times before leaving the country.
UNHCR, together with the Jordanian government, the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization and UN and NGO partners, is working day and night to support Syrian refugees. Nevertheless, conditions at Za'atri – a windswept camp in the desert – are still harsh, and most refugees are living in tents.
With winter approaching, UNHCR hopes to be able to move people into prefabricated housing, which is arriving at a rate of up to 30 homes a day, giving priority to the most vulnerable families.
In the meantime, refugees are doing their best to establish their lives in the camp. Over the weekend, the first wedding took place while there have been several births in Za'atri since the camp opened.
Guterres and Jolie later Tuesday met Jordan's King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Hussein, Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh and other senior officials.