Rioting forces UN staff to abandon Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

The UN evacuated staff from the Za'atari refugee camp twice in the last day. With winter weather bearing down on the roughshod camp, the conditions refugees rioted against will only worsen.  

By , Correspondent

Rioting has forced the United Nations refugee agency to evacuate its staff from the Za'atari camp twice in the last day, jeopardizing the primary source of support for the more than 30,000 Syrians living in the camp. By evening, they had returned to work, UN officials said, but the frequent disruptions are becoming a serious problem in the camp. 

Rumors have swirled about the reason for last night's riots, but UN officials and other sources blamed the unrest on the arrival of cold, wet weather. Last night, the first rains struck northern and central Jordan. Even in Amman, the air was filled with choking dust and mud and lightning split the skies. 

In the camp, UNHCR's canvas tents provided little shelter from the elements. Seeking respite from the weather, some refugees broke into the trailers serving as hospitals and offices while others tried to leave, sneaking over the fences ringing the camp or clashing with the Jordanian security forces that guard the area. Jordan does not permit the refugees to leave the camp.

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"After the dust came we couldn't do anything," said Um Mohammad, a woman from Dara'a who has been living in the camp with her family since early September. "We couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see my son in front of me. The tents were thick with dust, you couldn’t sit inside them because you couldn’t breathe, and then outside it was all darkness and dust and you couldn’t take a breath."

Conditions in the camp have long been derided, but the worst is still coming. As the weather gets colder, the once-baking hot desert refugee camp is poised to become a freezing mud hole. Already, temperatures in the desert camp are dropping radically at night. 

Many refugees fled Syria with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and UN officials have been worried for weeks about what would happen when the seasons changed. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates have provided money for trailers, but those are still being manufactured, and the funds will only cover about 2,700 units, said Ali Bibi, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency. That is far too few to house the roughly 6,000 families currently in Za'atari, and woefully inadequate when thousands more refugees are likely to arrive in coming weeks.

UNHCR has been scrambling to raise more funds for housing, while UNICEF, the UN children's agency, is looking for money for clothing, heaters for the school, and an upgrade to the camp's sewer system to prevent flooding when the rain comes.

"Across the board, we're racing against time before winter comes; which is not necessarily supported by the limited funding," said UNHCR Representative Andrew Harper, in a phone conversation from Geneva last night. The UN has received less than 30 percent of the $250 million it has requested from Jordan. 

No one was injured yesterday, according to the UN, but the clashes were at least the third time serious violence has broken out in the camp. All have seemed to follow a similar trajectory: They begin with the refugees, particularly young men, demanding to be allowed to return to Syria, and escalate into violence when the Jordanian security forces try to control the situation.

UN security procedures require that personnel be withdrawn whenever there is violence, Mr. Bibi says. They returned this morning, only to be withdrawn again later in the day amid warnings that there could be another violent gathering. Jordanian security swarmed the camp as aid staff withdrew. 

"[The World Food Programme] brought us food this morning, but since then we haven’t seen anybody and they still haven’t bought us anything else to eat," says Um Mohammed. "We are just exhausted and totally run down.  No one is helping us. People can not live like this. ... After the dust storm started the riot police were not letting anyone in, and would not receive the boys outside and they started beating the young men.  There isn't even any drinking water, or water in the bathrooms." 

By evening, some staff had returned to the camp and were trying to restore order. Mahmoud Omoush, a representative of the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, the local NGO that manages the camp along with UNCHR, said water was finally being brought into the camp, and denied that there were problems with food.

"I do not see any problem for the refugees now," he said, although he admitted that the camp was without power, which a team from JHCO was working to address.

But with tensions rising in the camp, and insufficient funds for expanding and improving shelter and providing adequate food and water, the situation appears to be getting out of control.

"We are getting beaten up by life, getting beaten by the darak, getting beaten by the weather," says one of Um Mohammad's sons. "The other boys that are here with me, they want to go back to Syria tomorrow."

With frequent violence disrupting operations, UNHCR officials are trying to stay the course. They believe the only solution is to continue to upgrade the facilities in Za'atari.

"There has been improvement on a daily basis," said Mr. Bibi. "And once these improvements are gradually felt by the refugees, I think things will calm down. ... But without the international donor support, we cannot reach that objective."

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