Almost half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan will find out by text message this afternoon that life-saving coupons that allow them to feed their families will be stopped next month.
The World Food Programme made the decision to withdraw the assistance because it is running out of funds. It has already tried to save money by cutting the value by a third from 20 dinars (£18) a month.
The text messages will tell the refugees that unless they are registered in one of Jordan’s designated camps they will no longer receive the food vouchers. However, 80 per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camps, trying to make ends meet.
Jonathan Campbell, the WFP’s Syria project lead in Jordan, called the severance of aid “a disaster”.
“It’s inevitable that it’s going to hit hard. People here have run out of any sort of resilience. They’re only able to survive by doing things we’d never ask them to do,” he said.
Refugees are forbidden from working in Jordan and although many find work illegally, their pay is low and the work often unreliable and dangerous. Many have been forced to take on debt, eat less, take their children out of school to work and — in desperate cases — marry young daughters off in order to have fewer mouths to feed.
An estimated 480,000 Syrian refugees will be affected by the new cutbacks, as they live outside refugee camps. By contrast, about 81,000 live in Zaatari, a camp that opened in 2012 and is now ranked as Jordan’s fourth largest city.
One aid worker said that the move could trigger a large-scale return to Syria. Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said: “Decreasing assistance to urban refugees in Jordan is forcing many to decide between living in closed camps or returning to the war in Syria.” The timing of the aid cut is poignant. The holy month of Ramadan ends in late July and is marked with the three-day festival of Eid, when families buy new clothes for children and prepare elaborate feasts.
Mr Campbell said he hoped that with a month’s notice, refugees might be able to prepare for the shortfall and hold some money back.
“It’s killing me and it’s killing my team, but we’ve borrowed against every pledge we have. We’ve done everything we can to avoid cutting people off before Ramadan,” he said.
By last night, word had begun to spread through Amman’s Syrian community. Ziad, a father whose wife is pregnant, said they would survive: he teaches Arabic to foreigners. But he knows others who will not. “I know a family of 13, and the father can’t work. The one thing they are living off is WFP coupons. This will be a big disaster for them,” he said. “They will be dead without these coupons.”
For most refugees it is not safe to return to Syria. The Assad regime continues to barrel bomb communities and fighting rages across the country, which is fractured between areas controlled by the government and rebels groups, including Isis.
Many are clinging to rumours of plans to create a buffer zone between the Jordanian and Syrian borders and that Syrians are being trained by Jordan to guard a future safe zone.