yarmouk camp

yarmouk camp
Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, Part 3, Jordan. By Bruce McLaren


Zaatari Refugee Camp. Jordan



As I look in ever increasing detail at all of the varied facets of this nightmarish quagmire I tend to picture Syria as some kind of octopus. Tentacles reach out, of different shapes and sizes, ever drawing in and affecting larger and larger groups of people. In the center of the vortex we find the octopus beak, the actual carnage of warfare taking place in Syria itself. Then there are the politically minded tentacles that draw in Islamists, while keeping the unlikely troika of the Assadist regime allied to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the orthodox Shia regime in Iran. Nearby Lebanon is at risk of being consumed by this war as the Lebanese Shia enter the fight while, at the same time, over 1 million refugees have left Syria for Lebanon, frightening the Christians there into thinking they will be simply out-populated. Then, of course, there are the Assadist links to Russia, which is playing a game of geopolitical chess with NATO over the Ukraine. Alas, that in the midst of all of this convoluted strife there are millions of real people, over 4 million now, who are refugees that have fled from Syria in a bid to find some open water as the beast of war flails about.

This blog is now moving onto the subject of Syrian refugees in Jordan. As in Lebanon, the Jordanians are awash with refugees. First of all, there are only 6-7 million people in Jordan. 2 million of those people are Palestinian refugees. 500 000 are Iraqis who fled during the Iraqi debacle of 2004-2011. Now, there are an additional 800 000 refugees from Syria. So the population of Jordan is skyrocketing with these waves of refugees, which is causing huge strains of infrastructure, in particular water. Jordan is the worlds 4th most water scarce country. If one glances at a map of Jordan one could be forgiven for thinking that such a large area must surely have some good land and water, but make no mistake, Jordan is to a very great extent, a desert, and, due to the balance of power in the region, Jordan has to cut deals with Israel to get the water it needs.

Just as the Lebanese Christians are concerned about the dramatic influx of Muslims into their country, possibly leading to sectarian violence, the Jordanians are equally wary of an influx of Palestinians. The Jordanians have accomodated the Syrian refugees admirably. But 500 000 Palestinian refugees have been turned away, which, according to Human Rights Watch is illegal. The sad tale goes that these Palestinians were forced to flee after 1948 and 1967. 13 refugee camps were established in Syria to accomodate them. But the Jordanians have not forgotten 1970 when the Palestinians rose up against them and tried to take power. 1 in 3 Jordanians is a Palestinian and the Jordanians don't want more. These poor Palestinians are truly the most cruelly ignored people on this earth, shunted hither and yon, unwanted by all.


Wikpedia. Refugees At Ramtha
As the above picture illustrates, not all Syrian refugees in Jordan have ended up in refugee camps. In fact, of the 800 000 or so refugees only about 150 000 are in refugee camps. The vast bulk of Syrian refugees have headed for the cities, like Ramtha, above. There are a number of logical explanations for this. First, we need to keep in mind that the border separating Syria and Jordan is entirely artificial, and was established after WWI by the British and French as they divided the spoils of victory. There are no natural obstacles to movement and we know that traders and merchants have been travelling freely between Syria and the Southern Levant for thousands of years. There are long histories at work here, of familial and mercantile connections.

So at lot of the refugees who have headed to the cities already have some kind of link with the place. These refugees will look for work and a real home, instead of a life of restricted boredom in a refugee camp. But the stresses and strains on the Jordanian economy will be telling. The influx of people has meant landlords have profited as rents have skyrocketed. Schools are overflowing. Resident Jordanians resent this. They also resent that 2% of their GDP is going to support the refugees, to the tune of 850 million dollars per year.

Most of these refugees have gone to Amman and Zerqa and Irbid, in numbers around the 100 000 mark. Smaller numbers are found in smaller centers. It is interesting to note that 20 000 have gone to the city of Salt (the original capital city of Jordan). Salt has the highest proportion of Christians so it is a fair bet that these refugees are Syrian Christians. By comparison 7000 have gone to Ma'an in the southern desert wastes, a hot-bed of Jihadist activity. One must assume that such refugees in Ma'an are not Christians.
Jordan. Map Showing Location Of Refugee Camps
Here is a map of Jordan showing the location of the three major refugee camps being used by Syrian refugees. You can see that all three camps are in the same general vicinity, in the pan-handle of Jordan, which, as the photo below illustrates, is a desert!


Jordan. The Eastern Desert
In times past this desert, known as the Harra, has been sparsely occupied, primarily because there is no water in a desert! Well, I speak too soon. There are oases and wells in occasional places so there has been some settlement, but mostly in the form of desert fortresses. These are found along the desert frontier, design to protect the more verdant lands behind them from the marauding bedouin bandits. You can find these fortresses dating back to Roman times.

Azraq Castle. Roman. Jordan

Kharaneh Castle. Islamic. Jordan

The first refugee camp we will look at is Zaatari. Zaatari was built in a two week period in May 2012 in response to an urgent request by the Jordanian government for the UNHCR to intervene. The camp was designed to hold 80 000 but within a year there were over 150 000. The sattelite photos below illustrate the rapid growth.

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC


Of all of the refugee camps associated with this conflict Zaatari is best known to us in the West. Photos like the one below, showing the sprawling mass of the camp out in the desert, filled most onlookers with a sense of disbelief when they saw them and were highly visible on the web. Zaatari seemed to have mor ein common with a Soweto shanty-town or a South American favela. At one stage Zaatari was the 4th largest city in Jordan. Now it is the 5th largest.


Zaatari. Jordan. Google

Zaatari. Jordan. Google


The director of the Zaatari camp, Dr. Killian Kleinschmidt, glows when he speaks about the success of Zaatari. It is true that the primary purpose of the UNHCR is to keep people alive, and if that is the yardstick being adhered to then he is correct. But by any other measure Zaatari has been a massive disaster. Over three thousand black-market businesses exist, which steal electricity to the tune of 750 million dollars a year. Gangs of criminals steal foreign aid and sell it back to the refugees. Accomodation is rudimentary, a ramshackle tent city. Water is a huge problem, with tens of thousands of gallons being trucked out to Zaatari on a daily basis.


Zaatari. Rudimentary Existence. Google



Zaatari. Google

Zaatari. Google

One can't be too critical of the UNHCR, after all they have saved countless lives, but to call Zaatari a success is ludicrous. Like most bureaucrats Kleinschmidt is adept at using words in such a way that a cow-poo could smell like a daffodil. He speaks hopefully of cities working together in an altruistic utopian manner. Amsterdam will provide 10 000 bikes to get around. Marseilles is working on plumbing. There is even talk of planting thousands of trees. But the thing is, trees take a lot of water, and they certainly need a lot to grow in a desert, and Jordan hardly has any water to begin with! Kleinschmidt's words are peppered with meaningless platitudes, like "We build refugee camps. Refugees build cities". According to Kleinschmidt, Zaatari is "the most fascinating project on earth when it comes to the development of camps.” Fascinating it may be. But successful?

Zaatari has had other nightmares. There have been riots, fires and floods, and people have been killed. Importantly, education is failing, with less than half children attending the schools. This is mightily important because the only available commodity that can improve the lot of these poor souls. For the UNHCR only addressed the first objective - to keep the refugees alive. But now comes the more tricky task of figuring out what to do in the long-term. It is not viable for cities to exist in deserts, without any money. Fortunately, the EU is providing large funding to UNICEF to address this problem.
Zaatari. Fire

Zaatari. Flood
As with Zaatari, the other two major camps in Jordan are located in a similar terrain. After the debacle of Zaatari the UNHCR planned another large camp out towards Azraq, further out in the desert. The sattelite image below shows that Azraq and Zaatari are similar sizes. Azraq will eventually hold 80 000 refugees as well.

Azraq Camp. BBC
Azraq has been more carefully thought out than Zaatari. The area of the camp is divided up into 8 villages of 10 000 refugees, each with it's own medic, school, police station, grocery store and so on. This should assist in avoiding traffic jams and in distribution. The shelters are permanent at Azraq, made of corrugated steel, and eventually will be wired up with electricity...if there is enough money to go around. The UNHCR is even implementing a system where each refugee has an identity card which doubles as a debit card. These can be used in groceries, with money put directly on the cards from the UN. This is more dignified than scrambling behind a truck trying to catch a loaf of bread. But it should be pointed out that this idea should be attributed to the Turks, and will be looked at in more detail when we get to Turkey.

Azraq. BBC


But, at the end of the day, Azraq camp is also in a desert. The water for the Azraq camp comes from Azraq oasis, about 40 miles away. And once more we are faced with the daunting question of "what will happen here in the long run"? After all, you can only build a city in a desert if you are sitting on an ocean of oil. The Jordanians are not.
Azraq. BBC

Azraq. BBC

Azraq. BBC
Each of these photos clearly illustrate the remoteness of these camps. Azraq, in particular, seems to have been designed with monitoring people in mind. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps unless they have a Jordanian sponsor, which most don't. If they leave anyway they are bound to be stopped at one of the many desert checkpoints. In this sense they are prison camps or detainment camps just as much as they are refugee camps.

Azraq. BBC

The third and final camp in Jordan, built to accomodate Syrian Refugees, is known as Mhrajeeb al-Fhood. Unlike Zaatari and Azraq this third camp is not run by the UNHCR but is run instead by the United Arab Emirates. In spite of this, there appears to be a deliberate aim at remoteness, at keeping the refugees are arms length. But it still leaves the elephant in the room regarding what are we going to do in the future with these unsustainable cities in the desert?
Mhrajeeb al-Fhood. Jordan
As you can see from the photo below the Emirati camp has done something different with accomodation. They have utilised shipping containers, insulted them, painted them, hooked them up to electricty and water. Each has a fridge and stove. Using shipping containers is a great idea as they provide better shelter and there are a lot of them available - they are inexpensive. But as we shall see in a few more blogs, just like the debit card system employed at Azraq, this was a Turkish initiative.

Mhrabeeb al-Fhood. Jordan


The Emirati camp is smaller than Zaatari or Azraq, only designed to hold 10 000 refugees. The entire camp is run by Emirati Nationals. With comparatively luxurious accomodation, a smaller number of refugees, and good medical attention, some have even called this "the 5-star refugee camp". You can decide for yourself.


Mrajeeb al-Fhood. Jordan


Mhrabjeeb al-Fhood. Jordan

John Kerry Looking Down From A Safe Distance

So there you have it, the situation in Jordan. Three camps in a desert. The UNHCR should be applauded for its efforts, no doubt. But I have a feeling that these miniature cities will be a great burden to bear for Jordan, and for some time to come.

There is a lot of techno-babble emanting from the mouths of those who work for the NGOS, such as "forward-thinking aid workers and others are looking at refugee camps as potential urban incubators", and "organic development, driven by refugees, is unstoppable", or "it’s a dynamic place, unforeseen by the humanitarian actors running it, which is giving refugees a sense of ownership and dignity". This is all complete nonsense. One day, people are going to have to make some hard decisions....


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