BEIRUT — Europe’s refugee crisis shows signs that it will intensify in the coming weeks as more war-weary Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan scramble to join the extraordinary flow of people trying to reach the continent, according to aid workers and Syrians.
Nearly 2 million of Syria’s refugees reside in the small Arab countries, where they face tightening restrictions, growing tension with locals and decreasing support from international aid agencies. Motivated by desperation and scenes of people arriving in Europe, many are selling their few remaining possessions to pay for the treacherous journeys, the aid workers and Syrians said.
U.N. officials also have observed a sharp rise in the number of refugees in Jordan who are trying to transit via Turkey by doing the unthinkable: crossing through war-torn Syria.
“I am going back into hell,” Zeid Saad, 28, a refugee from the Damascus countryside, said recently as he prepared to enter Syria from Jordan with his wife. After living in Jordan for two years, he said, he had run out of money and hope.
After the civil war started in 2011, overwhelming numbers of Syrians began pouring into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. The countries had pre-conflict populations of only about 4.2 million and 6.1 million people, respectively.
Syrian refugees have since exhausted savings, faced harsh restrictions on employment and lost optimism that their country’s raging war will end anytime soon. Falling donations, moreover, have forced aid agencies to greatly scale back support to refugees. The World Food Program has slashed its per-capita food allowances, which are now less than $14 a month for many Syrians, and stopped food aid for tens of thousands of other Syrians.
Many, as a result, appear to be leaving for Europe, said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
“There are signs that this trend is starting to build,” he said.
Heightened border restrictions in countries such as Croatia and Hungary appear to be adding urgency to the exodus.
“I’ve been trying to get a visa, but now I think I’ll just have to get on a boat like everyone else,” said Wael, 34, a Syrian from Aleppo who has lived in Lebanon for two years. He declined to give his last name because of security concerns.
About half of the more than 380,000 migrants and refugees who have pursued asylum in Europe this year are Syrian. It is unclear precisely where they are coming from. U.N. officials and aid workers said that many are coming directly from Syria, but also from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which hosts more than 1.9 million U.N.-registered Syrian refugees. Iraq and Egypt also host Syrians.
More than 4 million Syrians have become refugees because of the war, which has killed 250,000 people and displaced about half the country’s population of 22 million.
The outflow appears to have been hastened by the Syrian government’s decision this year to allow its embassies to issue — and renew — passports to citizens, including many refugees, who left the country without going through formal border crossings. That has enabled more Syrians to travel by boat or plane to countries such as Turkey.
At Syria’s embassy in Jordan, about 10,000 passports have been issued or renewed in recent weeks, the Associated Press reported, citing a Syrian diplomat.
Meanwhile, low-income families in Lebanon and Jordan are pooling thousands of dollars required for smuggling fees to send a father or son to Europe, hoping he can eventually find a way to bring over the rest, aid workers say. “You see this happening with those who have been stuck in these countries for the longest,” said an official with one international humanitarian group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the topic.
U.N. officials have observed a surge in refugees returning to Syria from Jordan, with many of them hoping to reach Europe through Turkey. In July, about 60 a day were returning to Syria. By this month, the number had reached nearly 200 on some days, said Andrew Harper, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Jordan.
Jordan’s military operates buses that shuttle Syrians from the country’s Zaatari refugee camp to an undisclosed location at the border. Syrians then make a journey northward that is fraught with attacks by government forces and extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
More than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan have registered with the United Nations. Jordan’s government says it hosts about 1.3 million Syrians. Many choose informal land routes to Turkey because they cannot afford airfare or because they lack travel documents, or both.
Ahmed Abu Walid, 30, is preparing to leave Syria on Sunday after three years in Jordan. He expressed concern about encounters with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“The eastern route is off-limits. That is ISIS territory,” he said as he planned his trip.
In Lebanon, where 1 in every 4 people is a refugee from the neighboring conflict, many Syrians are too poor to make the journey to Europe. But others aren’t, and they are leaving in greater numbers, Lebanese officials said.
At the port in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, officials said the number of Syrians taking boats to Turkey more than doubled from July to August. Many of those departures include people traveling directly from Syria, but a senior port official said boats are increasingly being filled by refugees who had been living in Lebanon.
“We’re seeing a big increase in the number of Syrian refugees who are leaving,” said the port official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Residents of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which have housed many Syrians during the crisis, also have observed an outflow in recent weeks.
“In the past month and a half, 25 of my Syrian friends have left the camp,” said Abdul Hamid Omar, 22, who fled Syria more than two years ago for the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut. One of his Syrian neighbors in the camp, Abu Musa, just arrived in Germany with his wife and six children, he said.
Yehia, a 34-year-old Palestinian resident of Beirut’s Shatila camp, said that scores of Syrians living in the area have been selling their furniture, jewelry and gold to pay the smuggling fees to reach Europe. Many have left, making the camp feel a little less crowded, he said.
As he prepared to leave Jordan for Europe, Saad, the refugee from the Damascus countryside, expressed concern about the precarious journey through Syria. But he had no other choice, he said as he clutched his wife’s hand.
“We either live in dignity or die trying,” he said.
Luck reported from Jordan. Suzan Haidamous and Sam Alrefaie in Beirut contributed to this report.