Jordan’s Ghost Camp

Monday, 20 Jan, 2014
Written by: Emma Pearson and Katie Welsford

Though desperately needed and long-awaited, the newly built Syrian refugee camp stands empty

Despite poor and cramped conditions for Syrians living in Jordan’s two other camps, Azraq must stay closed due to a decrease in the number of refugees coming over the border, and because it is for ‘emergency use only,’ according to the Ministry of Planning

The vast and empty desert does not seem like the place to build a city. High winds sweep the barren land. Temperatures soar to more than 40 degrees Celsius in the summer and plummet below minus one in the winter months. There is no river, no hilltop and no coast. But then, there is not a huge amount of choice in Jordan, a country made up of around 90 percent desert. And it is a country that needs a new city.

After Zaatari in Mafraq and Mrejeb Al-Fhoud in Zarqa, Azraq refugee camp is the third to appear in Jordan in response to the ongoing Syrian crisis. But with this camp there is a difference. While Zaatari sprung up suddenly—it was planned, built and opened within 10 days—Azraq camp is benefitting from something the earlier sites were not afforded: time.

‘The most designed camp in the world’

With more than 120,000 Syrians squeezed within its barbed-wire fences in an area measuring just two square miles (5 square kilometers), Zaatari camp constitutes Jordan’s fourth-largest city. The speedy construction of the camp, however, has led to growing problems within. Housing in the camp is cramped and of poor quality, and there are growing concerns over how it will continue to fare during the cold winter, which forecasters predicted would be the worst in a century. Families fleeing from Syria are quickly housed wherever a space is found. As such, the camp has become overcrowded. Most of the refugees are living among strangers, far from their friends, and many camp dwellers are suffering from an acute sense of isolation. Added to this, services are positioned on just one side of the camp, which leaves residents having to travel lengthy distances to access them.

Families are, of course, adapting in the best way they can. Many have used their Syrian entrepreneurial spirit to establish new services, while others have made attempts to turn their tents into more hospitable living spaces. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), meanwhile, are working hard to implement changes to make life easier for the residents of the camp. However, lawlessness is rampant, and many Syrians have reported the unusually high levels of vandalism and theft. So bad are the conditions within Zaatari that onsite doctors treating the refugees have commented on the worrying levels of lifestyle-related psychological distress. Many of Zaatari’s residents have subsequently chosen to risk financial disaster by relocating out of the camp; some have gone so far as to pack up their belongings and return to Syria.

With the persisting conflict in Syria and the flow of Syrians across the border reaching a peak of 4,000 a day earlier this year, the UN, the Jordanian government and numerous aid groups agreed on the joint construction of a new camp at Azraq in the Kingdom’s eastern desert. Initially expected to host 3,000 refugees, the camp has since expanded to accommodate up to 130,000.

Careful planning has been involved: shelters—metal-framed huts with a sizeable amount of space allotted for each, rather than the tightly packed tents found in Zaatari—are lockable in a bid to prevent the level of crime that is experienced in Zaatari and provide a greater sense of ‘home’ for their residents. But there is a tricky balance to maintain. Planners need to be careful to ensure the camp does not feel permanent. This is not just for the benefit of Jordanians, who fear Syrian camps will develop into a permanent feature in their country, as the Palestinian camps did, but also for the Syrian residents of the camp. Hope is what keeps many refugees going, and hope exists as long as their situation feels temporary.

The physical layout of the camp has also been carefully considered. Those in charge of planning the new camp have attempted to create villages within the space, decentralizing services to each of them so that residents can develop a sense of affinity with their neighbors, thus diminishing the likelihood of inter-household violence. To encourage the feel of a village, refugees would also be assigned to specific villages according to their area of origin within Syria—to attempt to recreate the geography of a country within a refugee camp is a novel idea.

Services such as playgrounds, medical centers, and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, which NGOs such as Mercy Corps and World Vision have worked hard to develop, are also positioned locally within the ‘villages.’ Not only should this end the lengthy treks to access basic services that camp dwellers are used to in Zaatari, but it would encourage a sense of ownership, which would, it is hoped, prevent the levels of graffiti and vandalism seen in Zaatari.

It is no surprise then, that Azraq camp has been dubbed the ‘most designed camp in the world.’

Emergency use only

The Syrian refugee crisis has had such coverage in Jordan that one would expect new facilities to spring into action as soon as they were deemed ready. Azraq, however, is still yet to open. The initial deadline for completion of the camp, July 2013, has long passed, and the camp exists now only as a ghost city. Its shelters are bare, its services are unused and its gates are shut. No definite opening date currently exists. Though guards protect the entrances of the camp, nothing stirs inside.

Some have attributed this to economic concerns in a country that is becoming increasingly anxious about the financial burden of the extra population. Work on Azraq began when the influx of refugees had reached the unfathomable number of 4,000 a day, when extra housing for the fast growing numbers of displaced Syrians was viewed as an absolute necessity. Now there are far fewer daily refugee numbers—sadly not as a result of an improving situation, but owing to the intensification of fighting in southern Syria. The paths into Jordan near Zaatari are perilous. Many refugees travel on foot and hundreds have been killed by regime air strikes while attempting to set foot on Jordanian soil. Thousands are reported trapped in towns and villages near the border. Some succeed in reaching Jordan only by journeying east along the Iraqi border and entering through remote desert crossings.

Numbers are also declining at Zaatari due to inhabitants heading out into Jordan’s cities or back into their homeland. This decrease in refugee flow has sparked discussion on whether the huge cost of opening a new camp is worthwhile. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that the decision of when to take this extra step rests with the government, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Planning said in a recent interview that, at present, Azraq exists only in case of emergency.

The camp therefore is ready, but waiting for another surge of refugees from Syria; waiting for another disaster like this summer’s chemical attack in Ghouta. Until such a day arrives, Syrians will have to make do with Zaatari. Azraq, meanwhile, will stand as a stark reminder of the horrors of Syria’s conflict, of the expectations for yet more refugees to flow across the border this year, and of the humanitarian disaster which is simply not ending.

Source: The Majalla.

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