By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
ZAATARI, Jordan (Reuters) - Mohammad Othman's bicycle route through the marketplace in the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari was once a struggle against a tide of people.
Now it's an easy ride. So many residents have left for the West, or been forced back to Syria by Jordanian authorities, that Zaatari, once the fastest-growing refugee camp in the Middle East, has gone quiet.
"Before, even if I was walking, I would not be at ease with so many people jostling," said Othman, 24, who recalls how tents for newly arriving refugees could not be erected fast enough when he arrived with his family in 2012.
Where there had been empty desert, a sprawling slum city emerged, with a population of 125,000 at its peak. Around half a million people have passed through.
Shops sprang up offering everything from ice cream to pizzas, mobile phones or wedding gown rentals. Prime spots changed hands for thousands of dollars.
"From the very beginning there was a great industriousness, Syrians being tremendously resourceful," said Paul Stromberg, of the UNHCR refugee agency in Jordan.
The camp's expansion helped to rejuvenate the economy of a neglected part of Jordan previously known for the smuggling of everything from sheep to arms and drugs.
Ostentatious villas have been built by local contractors who secured lucrative donor-financed service deals in Zaatari. Economists estimated that a million dollars a day were being funneled into the camp at its peak.
But many residents joined the refugee trail to Europe last year, returning to Syria and crossing the war-torn country to travel on via Turkey. Others have left through more formal channels, their applications for immigration accepted by Western states.
There are no new arrivals to replace them. Jordan sealed its 370-km (230-mile) border with Syria in May 2013, citing strain on its limited water resources and economy.
The number of residents of Zaatari has plunged to 79,000, according to an official U.N. figure, and some say it is even lower. Its economy has slumped dramatically.
The operations of the U.N. agencies and NGOs in the camp have shrunk. Funds for cash-for-work programs to supplement meager U.N. handouts have dried up, experts and donors say.
NO TREES, NO PAVEMENTS
Othman now scrapes a living using his donkey cart to collect stale bread to sell as animal fodder. The Jordanian authorities, nervous of any signs of permanence, have banned any form of motorized transport in the camp.
"The Zaatari camp is stagnant," said Saba Mobaslat, a senior official for Save the Children.
"The fact is that we are not receiving new arrivals so whoever leaves the camp for what reason is not being replaced so the population will continue to decline."
Donor states are prodding the Jordanian government to relax labor laws to allow thousands of refugees to work legally in industrial parks and businesses near the camp.
"If only the Jordanians would give us more leeway to better ourselves by ourselves - to give us more freedom in work," said camp resident Abdullah Salamah.
The government of a country shaped by waves of refugees from regional wars is anxious to prevent Zaatari turning into a long-term settlement. Corrugated iron is allowed in, but not cement. Refugees are forbidden to plant trees or lay pavements.
Desperate to earn some cash outside the camp, hundreds of refugees queue daily at a government office to apply for a 15-day permit to leave.
A trickle of refugees, including children, go out through the heavily guarded gate to do casual day work on nearby farms.
Tough conditions mean some cannot wait for the permit, and sneak out illegally. If caught, they can be sent back to Syria.
"The problem is that at any time they can send me back to the war I fled," said Abu Ayham, 38, a refugee from the Damascus suburbs, after a day spent picking tomatoes.
"I would prefer to leave for Europe or America than remain afraid that any day they could send me back."
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry and Andrew Roche)