With more and more refugees from Syria crossing the border into Jordan, authorities have had to build a new camp to accommodate new arrivals. Located in the desert, temperatures in the camp can reach 40°C (around 100°F), and strong winds whip up the sandy terrain. According to our Observer, who visited the site, living conditions are so harsh that some refugees regret having fled to Jordan at all.
After 17 months of conflict in Syria, Jordan’s existing refugee camps were strained beyond capacity, with up to 1,500 people arriving in the country each night in recent weeks. Seeing that its sites were overwhelmed, Jordanian authorities and a number of local charities teamed up to request the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners to help build a new camp to deal with the influx. Building on the camp began on July 20, the first day of Ramadan, in a desert near Jordan’s northern city of Mafraq. Little more than a week later, the Za’atri camp opened.
Strong winds kick up dust at the Za'atri camp.
Although Za’atri has not yet been completed, frustrations over living conditions inside the camp have already begun to boil over, with reports of a small riot breaking out on Monday.
The UNHCR, however, has fully acknowledged the difficult living conditions at the Za’atri camp, saying it knows its location in the desert is far from ideal.
“We obviously do not want to host refugees who have suffered so much in a camp like Za'atri," said Andrew Harper, the UNHCR's representative in Jordan. "We are the first to admit that it is a hot, desolate location. Nobody wants to put a family who has already suffered so much in a tent, in the desert, but we have no choice”.
The UNHCR has said that it and its NGO partners have said they are working to improve harsh living conditions in the camp, which currently hosts an estimated 4,414 people and counting.
“There are people within the camp who would rather go back to Syria and face the risk of death, than stay in the camp”
Khaled X. (not his real name) is a human rights activist who visited the Za'atri camp to see what the living conditions were like.
The camp is in a desert area. It’s dry, incredibly windy and there’s a lot of dust in the air. The people living there told me that when they go to take a shower, by the time they get back to their tent, they’re already covered from head to toe in dust again.
A lot of these people come Syria’s central city of Homs or other urban areas, and they’ve probably never spent any time in a desert. They’re completely out of their element. All of a sudden they find themselves plopped down in the middle of the desert, with limited resources.
Tents inside the Za'atri camp.
In general, the refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The camp is heavily guarded and there’s even a helicopter that circles at night. One of the only ways for someone to get permission to leave is if a Jordanian sponsors them. The situation inside the camp feels tense. A number of refugees told me that there had been some altercations with security personnel and a small riot recently, and I saw policemen walking around with batons.
One of the biggest complaints I heard from people within the camp was about the food. They say food is scarce and what is available is of bad quality. When I went to the camp on Monday, people in the camp had not eaten for the past 24 hours when the food truck arrived. Some said they felt the food delivery had been delayed because they were being punished over the recent unrest in the camp. Another problem is water. There is running water there, but because of the weather conditions it is often too hot to drink. I spoke with a father who said his baby would no longer drink from a bottle, because the liquid was too warm. They do bring cold water into the camp, but that comes only as often as the food does.
Refugees crowd around a truck distributing aid.
“I would urge the authorities to spend one night with these refugees to see what it’s like”
People also complained about the bureaucracy inside the camp. They have to register in the camp as a refugee, but they don’t know when they’ll be called to sign up [registering as a refugee allows individuals to access various forms of protection and assistance]. So they wind up waiting days in uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen to them.
There are people within the camp who would rather go back to Syria and face the risk of death, than stay in the camp. I spoke with people who have nothing left in Syria, their homes have been completely destroyed in the conflict, but who are trying to get out whatever way they can. I would urge UN officials and the Jordanian authorities to spend one night with these refugees just to see what it’s like. It’s miserable.