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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 Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / October 2, 2012



Amman, Jordan

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. 

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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.

"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.

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