A senior United Nations official on the front line of the Syrian crisis has said it is wrong to assume that refugees want to flee to Europe.
In the Za’atari camp in northern Jordan – home to almost 80,000 displaced people a 30-minute drive from the war zone – Maeve Murphy said high numbers of vulnerable people are turning down overseas resettlement.
The camp is on 5.3 km sq of desert and has become a city in its own right, after evolving from a collection of tents when the conflict broke out almost six years ago.
Ms Murphy, senior operations manager in Jordan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), does not accept Za’atari is there for good.
“We don’t use the term permanent with regard to any of the camps,” she said.
“Obviously most of the refugees would ideally prefer to go home and this is why they have stayed close to the border here in Za’atari.”
Jordan has a population of 6.3 million and hosts more than 655,000 officially registered Syrian refugees. The true figure is estimated to be much higher.
Almost half of them fled from the Dara’a region with large proportions also from Damascus, Homs and Hama.
Only about 20% live in camps – the vast majority scrape together money to rent rooms, land, flats or houses across the country, in the hope that they can return to their homes one day.
In neighbouring Lebanon, there are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country with a population of about 4.3 million.
Ms Murphy said it is wrong to say Europe is a goal for the vast majority of Syrian refugees.
“It is really a misconception,” she said.
“Effectively, when you have the resettlement opportunity, we identify the most vulnerable, but we see high numbers turning it down.
“They don’t envisage their future as being in an alternative country. They want to go back to their families. They want to rebuild their lives.”
In Za’atari camp, a child is born roughly every two hours and close to half a million people have passed through since it opened in 2012.
The UN and aid agencies are teaming up to install clean drinking water supplies and sewerage systems to the entire camp, despite insisting it will not be a permanent settlement.
Joe McHugh, junior minister for overseas development in the Irish government, toured Za’atari to witness first hand how Irish Aid funding is spent and how the camp’s 11 schools, two hospitals and one labour ward operate.
“When you see the women ringing their mother or sister (at a family tracing centre) they are thinking of home and better days,” he said.
“There’s a clear indication that not everybody is looking at alternative countries.”